When Navy SEALs carry out dives in Arctic waters, or when rescue teams are diving under ice-covered rivers or ponds, the survival time even in the best wetsuits is very limited — as little as tens of minutes. Researchers have discovered a process to triple that survival time.
The process works by placing a standard neoprene wetsuit inside a pressure tank autoclave filled with a heavy inert gas for about a day. The treatment then lasts for about 20 hours — far longer than anyone would spend on a dive. The process could also be done in advance, with the wetsuit placed in a sealed bag to be opened just before use. The process essentially combines a blubber-like insulating material that also makes use of trapped pockets of gas; namely, xenon or krypton.
The material that has become standard for wetsuits is neoprene, an inexpensive material that is a mix of synthetic rubber materials processed into a kind of foam, producing a closed-cell structure similar to styrofoam. Trapped within that structure, occupying more than two-thirds of the volume and accounting for half of the heat that gets transferred through it, are pockets of air. If the trapped air is replaced with xenon or krypton, the material's insulating properties increase dramatically. The result is a material with the lowest heat transfer of any wetsuit ever made. This could improve survivability in water colder than 10 °C, raising it from less than one hour to two or three hours.
Currently, the only viable cold-water alternatives to wetsuits are dry suits, which have a layer of air between the suit and the skin that must be maintained using a hose and a pump; or a warm-water suit, which similarly requires a hose and pump connection. In either case, a failure of the pump or a cut or tear in the suit can result in a quick loss of insulation that can be life-threatening within minutes. But the xenon- or krypton-infused neoprene requires no such support system and has no way of quickly losing its insulating properties, and so does not carry that risk. One next step is to look at ways of making a long-term, stable version of a xenon-infused neoprene, perhaps by bonding a protective layer over it.