Does Your Rebreather Scrubber Operate in Its Goldilocks Zone?

Exoplanet Gliese 581d, orbiting the red-dwarf star Gliese 581, only 20 light-years away. (The existence of this planet is currently in dispute.)

In space, there is a so-called Goldilocks zone for exoplanet habitability. Too close to a star, and the planet is too hot for life. Too far from its star, and the planet is too cold for life, at least as we understand biological life, life dependent on water remaining in a liquid state. Earth is clearly in the Goldilocks zone, and so is a purported planet Gleise 581d, from another solar system.

Carbon dioxide absorbing “scrubber” canisters in rebreathers have similar requirements for sustaining their absorption reactions. If it’s too hot, the water necessary for the absorption reaction is driven off. Too cold and the water cannot fully participate in the absorption reactions.

Those with some knowledge of chemistry recognize that cold retards chemical reactions and heat accelerates them. But that does not necessarily apply to reactions where a critical amount of water is required. Water thus becomes the critical link to the reaction process, and so maintaining scrubber temperature within a relatively narrow “Goldilocks” zone is important, just as it is for life on distant planets.

Temperature within a scrubber canister is a balance of competing factors. Heat is produced by the absorption of CO2 and it’s conversion from gas to solid phase, specifically calcium carbonate. A canister is roughly 20°C or more warmer than the surrounding inlet gas temperature due to the heat-generating (exothermic) chemical reactions occurring within it.

Heat is lost from a warm canister through two heat transfer processes; conduction and convection. Conduction is the flow of heat through materials, from hot to cold. Hot sodalime granules have their heat conducted to adjacent cooler granules, and when encountering the warm walls of the canister, heat passes through the canister walls, and on to the surrounding cold water.

You can think of this conduction as water flowing downhill, down a gravity gradient. But in this case, the downhill is a temperature gradient, from hot to cold. If the outside of the canister was hotter than the inside, heat would flow in the opposite direction, into the canister.

Copper is a better conductor of heat than iron (it has a higher thermal conductivity), explaining why copper skillets are popular for cooking on stoves. Air is a poor conductor of heat, explaining why neoprene rubber wet suits, filled with air bubbles, are good insulators. Air-filled dry suits are an even better insulator.

Chemical absorption reactions heat an otherwise cold canister (yellow is hot, red is warm, black is cold.) (Copyright John R. Clarke, 2014).

Convection is the transfer of heat to a flowing medium, in this case gas. You experience convective cooling when you’re working hard, generating body heat, and a cool dry breeze passes over your skin. Convective cooling can, under those circumstances, be delightful.

When you walk outside on a cold, windy day, convective cooling can be your worst enemy. Meteorologists call it wind chill.

There is wind chill within a canister, caused by the flow of a diver’s exhaled breath through the canister. In cold water the diver’s exhaled breath leaves the body quite warm, but is chilled to water temperature by the time it reaches the canister. Heat is lost through uninsulated breathing hoses exposed to the surrounding water.

As you might expect, if the canister is hot, that convective wind chill can help cool it. If the canister is cold, then the so-called wind chill will chill it even more.

Copyright John R. Clarke, 2014.

The amount of heat transferred from a solid object to gas is determined by three primary variables; the flow rate of the gas, the density of the gas, and the gas’s heat capacity. Heat capacity is a measure of the amount of heat required to raise the temperature of a set mass of gas by 1° Celsius.

Both the heat capacity and density  of the gas circulating through a rebreather changes not only with depth (gas density), but with the gas mixture (oxygen plus an inert diluent such as nitrogen or helium).  The heat capacity of nitrogen, helium and oxygen differ, and the ratio of oxygen and inert gas varies with depth to prevent oxygen toxicity. Nitrogen and helium concentrations vary as well,  as the diver attempts to avoid nitrogen narcosis. Capture2

Q is heat transferred by convection, and the terms on the right are, in sequence, diver ventilation rate, gas density, heat capacity of the inspired gas mixture at constant pressure, and the difference in temperature between the absorbent and environmental temperature.

The interaction of all these variables can be complex, but I’ve worked a few examples relevant to rebreather diving. The assumptions are a low work rate: ventilation is 22 liters per minute, water temperature is 50°F (10°C), oxygen partial pressure is 1.3 atmospheres, and dive depths of 100, 200 and 300 feet sea water. The average canister temperature is assumed to be 20°C (68°F) above water temperature, a realistic value found in tests of scrubber canister temperatures by the U.S. Navy.

The heat capacities for mixtures of diving gases come from mixture equations, and for the conditions we’re examining are given in the U.S. Navy Diving Gas Manual. (This seems to be a hard document to obtain.)

At 100 fsw, the heat transfer (Q) for a nitrogen-oxygen (nitrox) gas mixture is 34.2 Watts (W). For a helium-oxygen mixture (heliox), Q is 27.4 W.  At 200 fsw, Q for nitrox is 59.9 W, and for heliox Q is 50.3 W. At 300 fsw, Q for nitrox gas mixture is 85.5 W, and for heliox, is 59.9 W.

Interestingly, the heat transferred from the absorbent bed to the circulating gas is the same at 300 fsw with heliox as it is at 200 fsw with nitrox.

Photo courtesy of David L. Conlin, Ph.D., Chief – National Parks Service Submerged Resources Center. Photo by Brett Seymour, NPS.

Dr. Jolie Bookspan briefly mentioned the fact that helium removes less heat from a diver’s airways than does air in her short article on “The 36 Most Common Myths of Diving Physiology” (see myth no. 20). Conveniently, heat exchange equations apply just as well to inanimate objects like scrubber canisters as they do to the human respiratory system.

From these types of heat transfer calculations it is easy to see that for a given depth, work rate and oxygen set point, it is better to use a heliox mixture than a nitrox mixture if you’re in cold water. That may sound counterintuitive considering helium’s high thermal conductivity, but the simple fact is, the helium background gas with its low density carries away less heat from the canister, and thereby keeps the canister warmer, than a nitrox mixture does. The result is that canister durations are longer in cold water if less heat is carried away.

In warm water, the opposite would be true. Enhanced canister cooling with nitrox would benefit the canister.

An earlier post on the effect of depth on canister durations raised the question of whether depth impedes canister performance. The notion that increased numbers of inert gas molecules block CO2 from reaching granule absorption sites has little chemical kinetic credence. However, changing thermal effects on canisters with depth or changing gas mixtures does indeed affect canister durations.

I’ve just given you yet another reason why helium is a good gas for rebreather diving, at least in cold water. Unfortunately, these general principles have to be reconciled with the specific cooling properties of all the rebreather canisters in current use. In other words, your canister mileage may vary. But it does look like the current simple notions of depth effects are a bit too simplistic.






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