The increase in the number of shark attacks and increased media attention have led to growing interest in methods for preventing shark bite injuries. Blood loss is the leading cause of death among shark bite victims. Therefore, reducing bleeding can offer more time to a victim being treated by emergency services.
A new material designed to save lives
The Australian researchers at Flinders University have been working towards developing a material strong enough to withstand shark bites, while keeping it sufficiently lightweight and water-resistant. Their idea involves incorporating a fibre that combines all of its characteristics with the neoprene from which most diving suits are made.
After testing several fibres by subjecting them to repeated perforation and laceration tests in a laboratory setting and then in real conditions, they settled on a plastic fibre with an unpronounceable name: ultra-high molecular weight polyethylene, otherwise known as UHMWPE.
Often used in professional fishing ropes and nets, as well as in components used in anti-ballistics applications, UHMWPE now has a new application.
"We tested our fabric on great white sharks, as it is the species responsible for the largest number of victims", said Charlie Huveneers, Associate Professor working in the Southern Shark Ecology Group at Flinders. "It took a lot more force to cut through this new fabric, compared to the standard fabric. The lacerations on the new material were smaller and shallower than those created with the same force on standard neoprene."
Limiting the impact of attacks
The neoprene fabric that was ultimately selected contains a combination of two such ultra-high molecular weight polyethylene fibres. However, further tests must be conducted before it can be marketed in order to measure the extent of the damage on human flesh and confirm the new material’s effectiveness.
In any case, there is an urgent need to better protect divers: shark attacks on people have increased steadily since the middle of the 20th century, for reasons as diverse as the increase in human population and aquatic activities, the continuous extension of territories exploited by humans, forcing sharks to colonise unusual areas, and climate change.