Beaver fur inspires design of better surfing wetsuits

Hang ten, dude!
A new product that emulates beaver fur's insulating properties may soon replace surfers' wetsuits. (Wikimedia commons)

It's rare that our national animal, the humble beaver, gets the spotlight. But the industrious mammal may soon be hailed as a gnarly hero in the surfing world.

And no, this isn't another story about a small mammal that's learned how to hang ten, showing off in a viral YouTube video.

It's about coming up with a replacement the for thick, heavy neoprene wetsuits that surfers wear in cold water. And the solution appears to lie in beaver fur -- and specifically the way it's structured.

"I was interested in bio-inspired design and my advisor was interested in sports technologies, so this came at the intersection of those two ideas. In sports technology there's a great need for textiles that have great insulating properties in water, but still let you stay agile and nimble," says Alice Nasto, a PhD student in mechanical engineering at MIT.

MIT engineers have redesigned a wetsuit using beaver fur as an inspiration. (Felice Frankel/MIT)

Unlike large marine mammals, like whales, which have blubber to keep them warm, animals like beavers and otters rely on a sophisticated layering of fur to trap air, which keeps them warm underwater, and dry when they're on land.

So Alice's team studied beaver fur with a microscope, and discovered exactly how the fur -- which sits in two layers, traps the air. They then attempted to copy it using a pliable rubber-like material.

The result is a layer of material thinner than neoprene with better insulating capabilities.

Traditional wetsuits work by trapping a layer of water between your skin and the neoprene, which is heated by your body, keeping you warm. But to achieve this the neoprene has to be bulky, and, when you get out of the water, you feel cold and damp.

Air is obviously much lighter than water, Alice points out, and trapping air requires less bulk than trapping water -- so the suit can be thinner and lighter.

Don't expect to see surfers using the new design any time soon; at this point it's conceptual, she adds. But it is another example of so-called bio-mimicry, where engineers and designers look to the natural world to solve a problem that technology is struggling with.

Any mechanism that's used in physics or fluid mechanics has probably already been used in nature, she adds. "This has all already been done, but we just have to figure out how it's been done."


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