56 innovations

Shrink-Wrapped BioSuit

In space, astronauts typically wear oversized, pressurized suits. We’ve all seen them, and if you’re like me, you wonder how those people get anything done up there. The suits — from the head gear to the gloves — are bulky and cumbersome.

But a team of researchers from MIT are working toward the future, where astronauts wear lightweight, skintight suits that give them much greater freedoms of mobility.

Dava Newman, a professor of aeronautics and astronautics and engineering systems at MIT, and her colleagues have engineered a “second-skin” BioSuit that employs springlike coils to produce active compression. The coils are made from a nickel-titanium shape-memory alloy that can be twisted or bent in one direction and then returned to its original shape when it’s heated.

In the case of the BioSuit, Newman and her colleagues embedded the coils into the fabric of compression cuffs. When they applied an electrical current to heat up the alloy, the coils contracted.

“With conventional spacesuits, you’re essentially in a balloon of gas that’s providing you with the necessary one-third of an atmosphere [of pressure,] to keep you alive in the vacuum of space,” Newman said in a statement for MIT News. “We want to achieve that same pressurization, but through mechanical counterpressure — applying the pressure directly to the skin, thus avoiding the gas pressure altogether. We combine passive elastics with active materials.”

The material relaxes when cooled, making it easy for the astronaut to remove the skin-tight suit.

One of next challenges to tackle is to figure out how to keep the coils in their contracted state. Maintaining the electrical current could cause too much heat over long periods of time and overheat an astronaut. A better solution, and one the team is exploring, could be some kind of locking mechanism that keeps the coils from loosening.

Newman said that the suits are not only made for space. But could also be used in athletic wear or military uniforms.

Source: news.discovery.comAdded: 22 September 2014