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IU researchers awarded Defense funds to install coldest extreme environmental chamber in nation

For Immediate Release Jan 31, 2024

BLOOMINGTON, Ind. — Indiana University School of Public Health-Bloomington is about to take “cooling off” to a whole new level.

Associate professor Blair Johnson has been awarded a $945,000 grant from the Defense University Research Instrumentation Program, a tri-service U.S. Department of Defense program, for the installation of a large-scale extreme environmental chamber. Positioned to enable researchers to study the effects of cold weather on human physiology, the chamber will reach temperatures of minus 40 degrees Celsius — making it one of the coldest, if not the coldest, in the country.

Blair Johnson School of Public Health-Bloomington associate professor Blair Johnson. Photo courtesy of the IU School of Public Health-Bloomington

The award, managed by the U.S. Army Combat Capabilities Command Army Research Laboratory, will support the installation on the IU Bloomington campus by the end of September. Johnson said his team will have input on the needs of the facility, but a professional engineering firm is in the process of being hired to design and construct the chamber.

“The U.S. Department of Defense is very interested in cold and how it affects the physiology of humans as well as how various equipment and materials work in those temperatures,” said Johnson, a researcher in the school’s Department of Kinesiology. “Climate change is opening up new trade routes in the Arctic as well as access to natural resources, so the DoD needs to have a presence in that area where it gets extremely cold.”

The construction of this chamber will help Johnson and associate professor Zachary Schlader understand the mechanisms that contribute to an increased risk of frostbite and cold weather injuries to ensure individual health as well as operational success of any given mission. Johnson said he hopes this facility opens the doors for collaboration with other organizations nationwide to test machines and other types of equipment at these temperatures.

“We hope this can be a facility that benefits not only the Department of Defense but other kinds of research as well,” Johnson said.

This is not the first project that Johnson’s team has led to study the effects of natural forces on the human body. In fall 2022, construction was completed on a water immersion tank and swim flume to “investigate the physiological effects of water immersion.”

Faculty members use these environments to assess the implications of thermal stress such as heat, cold and humidity and related stressors like dehydration and hypoxia on physiology. According to Schlader, in laboratory-based studies, the overarching goals of their research are to understand and mitigate deleterious effects of environmental stressors on health-related outcomes and to identify and harness health benefits associated with acute or chronic exposures to extreme environments.

Johnson said a lot of research is necessary to both prevent cold injuries and make extreme-cold climates tolerable for humans for various periods of time. The school’s current environmental chamber only reaches temperatures of 4 degrees Celsius, which does not accurately reflect the climate of the Arctic, where temperatures drop as low as minus 40 to minus 60 degrees Celsius.

School of Public Health-Bloomington associate professor Zachary Schlader.  School of Public Health-Bloomington associate professor Zachary Schlader. Photo courtesy of the IU School of Public Health-Bloomington.

Johnson and Schlader conducted an informal poll of other environmental chambers in the United States and discovered that the lowest extreme was between minus 25 and minus 30 degrees Celsius.

“We started there to see if any other researchers had the capability to get to minus 40 degrees Celsius,” Johnson said. “We wanted to build what we called ‘The Dream Chamber’ and joked that we also wanted to be able to get a tank into it.”

After consulting several engineering firms, Can-Trol Environmental of Ontario, Canada, confirmed the possibility of minus 40 degrees Celsius in the chamber. Johnson and Schlader plan to have two sections of the chamber — one for extreme cold and one for extreme heat — each measuring about 25 by 25 feet and 14 feet high.

“The other side will be able to reach 50 degrees Celsius, so it can get very hot as well — although there are other chambers in the U.S. that can reach that level,” Johnson said. “The cold side will be groundbreaking in not just temperature capabilities but the size.”

Johnson said their first project will be developing experimental models to determine who might be more susceptible to cold injuries — and how to prevent them. By identifying characteristics that put people at higher risk, the Department of Defense can head off any potential problems by avoiding placing certain individuals in that environment.

“Oddly, one of the things that is a major problem in the cold is that people get all geared up with thermal protection, and then they have to go outside and work and they actually sweat under their gear,” Johnson said. “That sweat becomes a problem once they stop working because now the clothes and skin are damp, which can damage the skin in those extreme cold temperatures. Although it is not frostbite, these non-freezing cold injuries can be very serious.”

Follow IU School of Public Health’s news and events page for future updates on this groundbreaking project.

Elizabeth Ellis is a content developer with the School of Public Health-Bloomington.

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