Imagine if you could merge Mario's swim-ready Frog Suit with his fur-lined Tanooki Suit. I know, it sounds too good to be true. But despair not, because researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) are developing a new kind of furry wetsuit, modeled on the pelts of beavers and otters. This bioinspired approach might insulate swimmers more efficiently than sponge-based fabrics used today, according to a study published in Physical Review Fluids.
"We are particularly interested in wetsuits for surfing, where the athlete moves frequently between air and water environments," said Anette (Peko) Hosoi, a professor of mechanical engineering and associate head of the department at MIT, in a statement. "Surfers, who go in and out of the water, want to be nimble and shed water as quickly as possible when out of the water, but retain the thermal management properties to stay warm when they are submerged."
Video: Melanie Gonick/MIT
Diving semiaquatic mammals have masterfully achieved this balance by evolving long "guard" hairs that act as a buffer for shorter, denser "underfur." The guard layer stops water from seeping into the underfur where it would chill the animal, while air pockets captured by the hairs are repurposed as insulation. Unlike other marine mammals like whales or seals, beavers and otters don't have massive blubber reserves to keep them warm, so it's crucial for their fur to be as thermally efficient as possible.
Hosoi and her team studied the fluid dynamics within beaver and otter pelts, and fabricated synthetic versions of their fur from a type of rubber called polydimethylsiloxane. The researchers are now working on optimizing heat retention and waterproofing of these models by testing out different design configurations.
"We have now quantified the design space and can say, 'If you have this kind of hair density and length and are diving at these speeds, these designs will trap air, and these will not,'" Hosoi said, "which is the information you need if you're going to design a wetsuit."
"Of course, you could make a very hairy wetsuit that looks like Cookie Monster and it would probably trap air, but that's probably not the best way to go about it," she added.
Sure, most people would probably prefer sleek wetsuits like the pelts of beavers and otters, but I personally wouldn't rule out a market for Cookie-Monster-level scruff. Who knows, maybe a lot of surfers are into the furry fetish. We'll just have to wait and see how this brave new world of furry wetsuits shakes out.
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