MIT is creating a revolutionary, furry wetsuit inspired by sea otters

While surf brands like Rip Curl and O’Neill advertise their wetsuits as light or quick drying, engineers from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) believe that the wetsuits of the future will be described by another adjective: furry.

In a press release accompanying the above video published Wednesday, MIT described how — in an effort to try to build the most revolutionary wet suit for surfers to date — they developed a fur-like, rubbery fabric inspired by, of all things, sea otters and beavers.

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“Beavers and sea otters lack the thick layer of blubber that insulates walruses and whales,” MIT wrote on its website, describing how the university’s wetsuit project began. “And yet these small, semiaquatic mammals can keep warm and even dry while diving, by trapping warm pockets of air in dense layers of fur.”

Sea otter furry wetsuit
Turns out there’s a reason all the sea otters patrolling those cold water breaks up in Northern California never get cold. Photo: Courtesy of Paul Williams/Flickr

According to MIT’s website, Dr. Anette Hosoi — a professor of mechanical engineering — helped spur the birth of the furry wetsuit during a 2015 trip to Taiwan when she met with a wetsuit manufacturer there.

"They are interested in sustainability, and asked us, 'Is there a bio-inspired solution for wetsuits?'" Hosoi said in the press release. "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."

So Hosoi challenged Alice Nasto — a graduate student at MIT — to find examples in nature that served as a model for how to retain heat while frequently moving in and out of the water.

Nasto found that biologists have long understood beavers and sea otters have two types of fur: long, thin "guard" hairs and shorter, denser "underfur."

The two types of fur work together to trap warm air against the mammals’ skin, keeping them drier and warmer.

But there was no in-depth mechanical understanding of how to replicate that effect, until now.

furry wetsuit
It may look odd, but the rubber, hair-like material might represent a breakthrough in building incredibly lightweight, flexible wetsuits.

“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.'” said Hosoi. “Which is the information you need if you're going to design a wetsuit.”

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To get to the breakthrough, Nasto used precise laser cutting techniques to create a rubber fabric with thousands of tiny hairs, varying the size and spacing between the individual hairs.

Then, she and Hosoi took samples of the rubber fur with different hair arrangements and dipped them in tubes of silicon oil to see how well they trapped air. After testing, they developed an equation to determine just how much air will be trapped by a certain arrangement of the rubber hairs.

Furry wetsuit gif
By testing in silicon oil, the developers could see which arrangements held air bubbles better.

"We can control the length, spacing, and arrangement of hairs,” said Hosoi. “Which allows us to design textures to match certain dive speeds and maximize the wetsuit’s dry region."

While it might seem far-fetched to imagine we will all be paddling out in otter-esque wetsuits in the future, it wouldn’t be the first time the action and outdoor sports industry drew inspiration from the animal kingdom.

The original climbing skins for skis, developed in the early 20th century, were actually made out of strips of seal skin. Due to the fact that seal fur grows at a low angle to the seal’s body, it gripped snow while climbing uphill and laid flat — allowing skiers to glide unimpeded — going downhill.

While seal skin has since fallen out of favor as a fabric for climbing skins, mohair — the hair of Angora goats — is still widely used.

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