3 March 2006
Space suit technology can protect workers from heatstroke
The technology used in space suits to protect astronauts carrying out
space walks in direct sunlight is now being used to develop protective
clothing to safeguard firefighters and steel workers who often work in
extremely hot and dangerous conditions.
“The existing protective clothing used while performing physically
demanding work in hot conditions can, in many cases, hinder workers’
ability to remain cool,” explains Stefano Carosio from the Italian company
D’Appolonia, Project Manager for the Safe&Cool Project.
“Through this project, named Safe&Cool, we are developing a special
protective material with a built-in cooling system based on the technology
developed for the space suits used by astronauts on the International
Space Station to prevent them from overheating when exposed to direct
sunlight during space walks.”
In Europe alone, the inability to shed excess heat and moisture through
clothing results each year in over 1500 heatstrokes. These can be fatal
unless medical help is at hand. Even more common, but less serious, are
cases of heat stress. This affects an estimated 50 000 workers each year
and increases the risk of injury at work due to loss of concentration.
Even at a temperature 21 C workers wearing impermeable protective clothing
can suffer heat stress when carrying out hard physical work.
“Our objective, through the Safe&Cool project, is to develop a higher
quality thermal and moisture management layer for protective clothing that
complies with EU directives,” adds Agnieszka Kurchewska, from the Polish
Institute for Labour Protection, National Research Institute (CIOP-PIB).
“If used for protective clothing this new material will make the working
environment safer and better through reducing the risk of heat stress and
heatstrokes for those operating in what can be dangerous and often
Conceived within ESA’s Technology Transfer Programme, the Safe&Cool system
is developed by a consortium of six small and medium-sized enterprises
(SMEs) from Italy, Belgium and Poland in cooperation with Italian Grado
Zero Espace and CIOP-PIB, and coordinated by D’Appolonia.
The cooling apparatus used in the project has been developed by Grado Zero
Espace and has already been used successfully in clothing for Formula-1
McLaren mechanics and the Spanish Moto-GP driver, Sete Gibernau. Following
a preliminary feasibility and concept validation study supported by ESA’s
Technology Transfer Programme, the project received financial support from
the EC under its CRAFT initiative to reach a pre-competitive stage of
Combining three advanced technologies
The Safe&Cool system makes use of three special technologies. Firstly a
special 3D-textile structure is used in the thermal and moisture
management layer to replace the interliner and moisture barrier of
classical three-layered protective clothing.
The materials used in the special 3D-textile structure are hydrophobic
thermal comfort fibres to avoid a wet feeling when in contact with the
body, combined with hydrophilic fibres to create suction channels to
transport moisture away from the skin.
The second technology is the cooling apparatus derived from astronauts’
suits. This enables liquid to be circulated through tubing inserted in
cavities in the 3D-textile structure, creating ‘blood vessels’ for heat
removal. A water-binding polymer is the third technology and this will be
added either as a coating or in the form of a powder dispersed inside the
The polymer will absorb and bind excess moisture migrating through the
semi-permeable membrane to maintain the temperature below a threshold
controlled by the cooling apparatus. If there is a sudden temperature
increase, arising from a burn flashover for example, and the cooling
system cannot remove heat fast enough from the body, the polymer will
release the liquid accumulated, reproducing the human natural sweating
process through evaporative cooling.
“Producing protective suits based on the combination of these three
technologies will increase the safety of those carrying out tasks in
dangerous environments,” says Pierre Brisson, head of ESA’s Technology
Transfer and Promotion Office. “This is another good example of how
advanced technologies and concepts already developed for space – in this
case to protect our astronauts – can provide innovative and advantageous
solutions for people on Earth.”
Although the immediate application for the Safe&Cool innovative thermal
management system is to create clothing to protect those working in harsh
environments, such as firefighters and steel workers, several other
promising applications have been identified by the consortium, including
use in sportswear and transportation. The Polish company TAPS, which is
part of the consortium, is already testing the industrial viability of
inserting the system as heating or conditioning elements inside passenger
seats in cars and public transport.
- The Safe&Cool Project Consortium
- ESA Technology Transfer Programme
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