Keep Your Powder Dry, Rebreather Divers

Compared to decompression computers, digital oxygen control, and fuel cell oxygen sensors, carbon dioxide absorbent is low tech and not at all sexy. Perhaps because it is low in diver interest, it is poorly understood. In rebreather diving, a lack of knowledge is dangerous.

The U.S. Navy Experimental Diving Unit (NEDU) is intimately familiar with sodalime, the crystalline carbon dioxide absorbent used in a wide variety of self-contained breathing apparatus for both diving and land use. NEDU routinely tests sodalime during accident investigations, during CO2 scrubber canister duration determinations, or during various research and development tasks. They have developed computer models of scrubber canister kinetics, and patented and licensed technology for use in determining how long a scrubber will last in diving and land applications.

The types of sodalime in NEDU’s experimental inventory are:  Sodasorb_rotate

  1. Sofnolime 408 Mesh NI L Grade
  2. Sofnolime 812 Mesh NI D Grade
  3. HP Sodasorb (4/8 Reg HP)
  4. Dragersorb 400
  5. Limepak
  6. Micropore

Absorbent undergoes a battery of quality tests at NEDU, most of them in accordance with NATO standardized testing procedures (STANAG 1411). One test is of the distribution of sodalime granule sizes, and another tests the softness or friability of the granules. One test checks the moisture content of the sample, and another tests the CO2 absorption ability of a small sample of absorbent.

From time to time, absorbent lot samples fail one or more of these tests. One failure of granule size distribution was caused by changes in production procedures. “Worms” of absorbent rather than granules of absorbent started showing up in sodalime pails. In another case, absorbent was found to have substandard absorption activity, and in yet another, the material was too soft. Too soft or friable material  can allow granules to breakdown, turning into dust.

This would not be a major problem, except that a diver or miner has to breathe through his granular absorbent bed, and dust clogs that bed, making breathing difficult. In the extreme, labored breathing from unusually high dust loading can result in unconsciousness.

Bag of granules_rotate
Sample bags of sodalime removed from absorbent buckets, awaiting testing.

What does the above have to do with this post’s title?

Supposedly, the maxim “Trust in God, but keep your powder dry” was uttered by Oliver Cromwell, but  first appeared in 1834 in the poem “Oliver’s Advice” by William Blacker with the words “Put your trust in God, my boys, and keep your powder dry!” If indeed Cromwell did say it, then it dates from the 1600’s.

A much more modern interpretation, appropriate for rebreather divers, is as follows: buckets of sodalime with a larger than usual layer of dust at the bottom (due to the mechanical breakdown of absorbent granules during shipment), should be kept dry. In other words, don’t dive it!

Micropore rolled carbon dioxide absorbent on the right, granular absorbent on the left.

Presumably this is not an issue with Micropore ExtendAir CO2 absorbent since it’s basically sodalime powder suspended on a plastic medium. The diver breathes through fixed channels in the ExtendAir cartridge, not through the powder.

Considering the relatively high cost of granular sodalime, a diver might be very reluctant to discard an entire bucket of absorbent with a non-quantifiable amount of dusting. They certainly will not be performing sieve tests for granule size distributions like NEDU, however one simple solution to a suspected dusting problem might be to sieve the material before diving it. The only requirement would be that only the dust should be discarded, not whole granules. In other words, your sieve must have a  fine mesh.

In NEDU’s experience, quality control issues are not necessarily a problem with manufacturing. Where and how sodalime is stored can apparently have an appreciable effect on sodalime hardness.  The same lot of sodalime stored in two different but close proximity locations has been found to differ markedly in its friability. Exactly why that should be, is presently unknown.

Regardless of whether the subject is sexy or not, a wise rebreather diver will seek all the knowledge available for his “sorb”, as it’s sometime called. After all, the coolest decompression computer in the world will do you no good at all if you’re unconscious on the bottom because you tried to outlast your CO2 absorbent.







Knock Yourself Out (Carbon Dioxide – The Diver’s Nemesis)

Most rebreather divers start off their diving career with open-circuit diving; that is, with scuba. And some of them pick up bad habits. I happen to be one of those divers.

With scuba you start the dive with a very limited amount of air in your scuba bottle. New divers are typically anxious, breathe harder than they have to, and blow through their air supply fairly quickly. More experienced divers are relaxed and enjoy the dive without anxiety, and thus their air bottles last longer than they do with novice divers.

So early in a diver’s experience he comes to associate air conservation with a sign of diver experience and maturity. When you are relaxed and physically fit, and your swimming is efficient, your breathing may become extraordinarily slow. Some call it skip breathing — holding your breath between inhalations.

I was once swimming among the ruins of Herod’s Port in Caesarea, and my dive buddy was a Navy SEAL. I started the dive under-weighted, so I picked up a 2000 year old piece of rubble and carried it around with me as ballast. In spite of the very inefficient style of swimming which resulted, my air supply still lasted longer than that of my SEAL buddy.

At first I was annoyed that I had to end the dive prematurely, but then I began to feel somewhat smug. I had used less air than a frogman.

As a physiologist I knew that I may well have been unconsciously skip breathing, which would have raised my arterial carbon dioxide level, potentially to a dangerous level. But all ended well, and I could not help being glad that I was not the one to call the dive.

It is important for rebreather divers to understand that they don’t have to be breathing elevated levels of carbon dioxide to run into physiological problems with carbon dioxide. It’s the carbon dioxide in your arterial blood that matters. It can render you unconscious even when you’re breathing gas with no carbon dioxide at all.

MK 16 rebreather diver

Normally the body automatically ensures that as you work harder, and produce more carbon dioxide in your blood stream, that you breathe more, forcing that CO2 out of your blood, into the lungs, and out through your mouth. It works like an air conditioner thermostat; the hotter it gets in the house, the more heat is pumped outside. In other words, arterial and alveolar CO2 levels are controlled by automatic changes in ventilation (breathing.) In fact you can predict alveolar levels of CO2 by taking the rate at which CO2 is being produced by the body and dividing it by the ventilation rate. This relationship is called the Alveolar Ventilation Equation, or in clinical circles, the PCO2 Equation.

Normally, CO2 production and ventilation is tightly controlled so that normal alveolar and arterial CO2 is about 40 mmHg, mmHg being a unit of so-called partial pressure. 40 mmHg of arterial CO2 is safe. [One standard atmosphere of pressure is 760 mmHg, so ignoring the partial pressure of water vapor and other gases, a partial pressure of 40 mmHg of CO2 is equivalent to exhaling about 5% carbon dioxide.]  

When a diver is working hard while breathing through a breathing resistance like a rebreather, as ventilation increases respiratory discomfort goes up as well. For most people, when the respiratory discomfort gets too high, they quit working and take a”breather”. But there are some divers who hate respiratory discomfort, and don’t mind high levels of arterial CO2. We call these people CO2 retainers.
Navy experimental deep sea divers; photo credit: Frank Stout

As an example, I once had as an experimental subject a physically fit Navy diver at the Naval Medical Research Institute during a study of respiratory loading. The test was conducted in a dry hyperbaric chamber under the same pressure as that at 300 feet of sea water. The experimental setup in the chamber looked somewhat like that in the figure to the right although the diver I’m talking about is not in this photo.

The diver was exercising on the bicycle ergometer while breathing through a controlled respiratory resistance at 300 feet in a helium atmosphere. The diver quickly learned that by double breathing, starting an inspiration, stopping it, then restarting, he could confuse the circuitry controlling the test equipment, thus eliminating  the high respiratory loading.

As he played these breathing pattern games my technician was monitoring a mass spectrometer which was telling us how high his expired CO2 concentration was going. The exhaled CO2 started creeping up, and I warned him that he needed to cut out the tricky breathing or I’d have to abort the run.

The clever but manipulative diver would obey my command for a minute or so, and then go back to his erratic breathing. He joked about how he was tricking the experiment and how he felt fine in spite of the high CO2 readings.

That was a mistake.

When you’re talking, you’re not breathing. Since his breathing was already marginal, his end-tidal CO2, an estimate of alveolar CO2, shot up in a matter of seconds from 60 to 70 and then 90 mmHg, over twice what it should have been. When my technician told me the diver’s exhaled CO2 was at 90 mmHg, I yelled “Abort the run”. But the diver never heard that command. He was already unconscious and falling off the bike on his way to the hard metal decking inside the hyperbaric chamber.

The diver thought he was tricking the experiment, but in fact he was tricking himself. Although he felt comfortable skip breathing, he was rapidly pedaling towards a hard lesson in the toxicity of carbon dioxide.

Keep in mind, this diver was breathing virtually no carbon dioxide. His body was producing it because of his high work level, and he was simply not breathing enough to remove it from his body.

In upcoming posts we’ll look at what happens when inspired CO2 starts to rise, for instance due to the failure of a carbon dioxide scrubber canister in a rebreather. I already gave you one example in the CO2 rebreathing study of my first post in this series. There’s lots more to come.














Carbon Dioxide – The Diver’s Nemesis Pt. 1 (Meduna’s Mixture)

Of all the gases humans excrete, the most bountiful, and arguably the most deadly, is exhaled carbon dioxide.

There is a forgotten bit of American medical history that reveals the bizarre features of the toxicity of carbon dioxide. In 1926, before the advent of modern psychiatric medications, some American psychiatrists began experimenting with the use of inhaled carbon dioxide for the treatment of schizophrenia and psychoses. At the time, there were no effective treatments other than electroshock.

Dr Ladislas J. Meduna

One of the most successful of these researchers was Dr Ladislas J. Meduna, a Professor of Psychiatry at the University of Illinois College of Medicine in Chicago.

High levels of carbon dioxide (CO2) did in fact have some success in treating schizophrenia, but it also produced Out of Body (OBE) and seemingly spiritual experiences. The following text is quoted from a book called Carbon Dioxide Therapy. A Neurophysiological Treatment of Nervous Disorders, published in 1950 and authored by Meduna.Meduna administered by mask between 20 and 30 breaths of a gas mixture of 30% CO2, 70% O2. From pg. 22 of his book we find,

“Any attempt to define the sensory phenomena during CO2 anesthesia, in terms of dream, hallucination, illusions, etc., would be futile. The actual material would support any hypothesis. Some of the sensory phenomena would direct us to define them as hallucinations. Some of these phenomena are felt by the patients as “real dreams”; others obviously are dreamy repetitions of real events in the past or of past dreams. I believe therefore that any classification of these phenomena in terms of dream or hallucination would be not only meaningless, but directly misleading; the patient is not “sleeping” in the physiological sense, nor is he in the state of consciousness which we usually assume to be present in true hypnagogic hallucinations.”

click to enlarge

“One subject, after 20 respirations of the gas, reported seeing a “bright light, like the sun.”

“It was a wonderful feeling. It was marvelous. I felt very light and didn’t know where I was. For a moment I thought: ‘Now isn’t that funny. I am right here and I don’t know whether I am dreaming or not.’ And then I thought that something was happening to me. This wasn’t at night. I was not dreaming. And then it felt as if there were a space of time when I knew something had happened to me and I wasn’t sure what it was. And then I felt a wonderful feeling as if I was out in space.”

“After the second breath” — reported a 29 year-old healthy female nurse who had taken a treatment – “came an onrush of color… then the colors left and I felt myself being separated; my soul drawing apart from the physical being, was drawn upward seemingly to leave the earth and to go upward where it reached a greater Spirit with Whom there was a communion, producing a  remarkable, new relaxation and deep security. Through this communion I seemed to receive assurance that the petite problems or whatever was bothering the human being that was me huddled down on the earth, would work out all right and that I had no need to worry.”

“In this spirituelle I felt the Greater Spirit even smiling indulgently upon me in my vain little efforts to carry on by myself and I pressed close the warmth and tender strength and felt assurance of enough power to overcome whatever lay ahead for me as a human being.”

Meduna summarized that preceding case by stating, “In this beautiful experience we can discern almost all the constants of the CO2 experience: (1) color; (2) geometric patterns; (3) movement; (4) doubleness of personality; and (5) divination or feelings of esoteric importance.”

Meduna went on to admit that “Not all of the sensory phenomena experienced by the patients are of celestial beauty and serenity. Some of them are horrifying beyond description.”

In 1971, Chris Lambertsen, M.D., Ph.D., from the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine, and considered to be the father of special warfare diving by Navy SEALS, published a careful examination of the physiological consequences of the Meduna mixture. He found that inhalation of 30% CO2 in oxygen would cause unconsciousness and convulsions within 1-3 min. The precipitating event for loss of consciousness seemed to be a catastrophic increase in the acidity of the blood due to the large amount of carbonic acid produced by the CO2 inhalation. This raises the possibility that the experiences noted by Meduna were caused by pre-convulsive events within the brain.

Since then the medical community has deemed carbon dioxide “treatments” as not only dangerous but ineffective compared to modern psychiatric medication. Meduna’s mixture is no longer used.

While at the Naval Medical Research Institute, I was my own research subject in a study of the effects of rebreathing  CO2 concentrations up to 8%. That was a carbon dioxide concentration that some Navy SEALS had claimed could be tolerated without impairment.

The simplest scrubber canister in the simplest rebreather, Ocenco M20.2

I was not under water, but riding a stationary bicycle ergometer in the laboratory, simulating breathing on a closed-circuit underwater breathing apparatus (in diving vernacular, a rebreather.) Although oxygen was being added as I consumed it, there was no carbon dioxide scrubber (a container of carbon dioxide absorbing material), so the test was examining what happens when a scrubber canister is no longer functioning properly. At 7% inspired  CO2 I stopped the exercise, feeling a little abnormal. However, I was surprised at how unimpaired I seemed to be; that was, until I attempted to dismount the ergometer. I almost fell and needed help removing myself from the bicycle to a chair.

The single-minded and simple-minded task of exercising had hidden a growing central nervous system impairment. Like someone intoxicated with alcohol, I could not judge my level of impairment until a task requiring some coordination was required.

So we see that high levels of carbon dioxide intoxication can lead to profound disturbances of the central nervous system. In upcoming posts we’ll see how elevated carbon dioxide levels and the control of respiratory ventilation can interact to put rebreather divers at risk.

Much of the above is from a nonfiction book project currently under review. The working title for the book is “Collected Tales of the Spiritual and Paranormal.”


What I Would Miss on Mars

When I first saw images from NASA’s various Mars rovers, I was almost crawling out of my skin with excitement. As I spoke at a NASA sponsored conference where scientists and engineers were discussing plans for a Mars mission and colonization, I was enthralled with the thought that humans are actually planning for mankind to leave our planet for a foreign world.

Lately, I’ve been thinking about what I would miss if I were a colonist on Mars. I’ve decided, what I would miss the most is something we take for granted in most places of the world; water.

Of course, Martian pioneers would have to have abundant stockpiles of drinking water. But I sure would miss Earth’s oceans; their awe inspiring breadth and depth, their multitudes of sea life, and the gentle shades of blue-green in clear water along sandy coasts.

I would miss the sound of the surf, the laughter of children chasing and being chased by harmless but persistent waves.

I would miss the sound of clicking shrimp, and the clicking of dolphins corralling schools of fish.

I would miss being able to open the windows on a perfect day. I would miss feeling a breeze on my bare face.

I would miss never having to wonder if I had enough oxygen to breathe. I’d miss not worrying that toxic carbon dioxide would seep into my tiny house and suffocate me and my family in our sleep, or that my home’s pressure barrier would fail and our blood would essentially boil, releasing a flood of deadly bubbles stopping our hearts.

I am concerned that those attempting to colonize Mars woud sink into a chronic melancholy simply because the water that pleases and sustains so many of us is absent on Mars. Could these homesick astronauts survive, and even thrive?

If the first wave of colonizers did survive, procreate, and nurture the next generation, the first generation of true Martians, then I suspect that generation would fare much better psychologically than the first. After all, they would never have known the verdant forests and splendorous seas of Earth.

As I pondered what it would be like to be a third and fourth generation colonist on Mars, growing up knowing nothing else, I realized that rather than space exploration being a guaranteed and common place activity at that time in the not too distant future, a bleaker possibility exists.

It is entirely possible that war, disease, asteroid and comet collisions, or even the failure of mismanaged banking systems could so impoverish the Earth that space travel to the Martian colony might not remain economically sustainable. Eventually, to the stranded Martians our Earth could be little more than a distant memory, perhaps even a legend. Martian children might grow up on the red planet hearing tales of Sky People who came to Mars from a far away place, a world of indescribable beauty, with colors of blue and green that are not even imaginable on Mars.

Some native Americans have in the past recounted tales of Sky People coming to Earth. Wouldn’t it be ironic if the next generation of Earthlings becomes the fabled Sky People that populate the planet Mars?

If offered the chance to be one of those Sky People on a one-way trip to Mars, would I sign up for the mission? Frankly I don’t think I could leave the most beautiful planet in the solar system, perhaps in the galaxy, even for something as exotic as a trip to Mars. 


Another Rebreather Scrubber Thermokinetic Simulation

Compared to the previously posted video of a segment of a rebreather scrubber, this video shows a much larger, and therefore more realistic scrubber with axially aligned, CO2 rich gas flow passing from left to right. Due to the larger size of the simulation space, more widely distributed heat patterns are noticeable, as are fluctuations in heat. The flow of those fluctuations are most noticeable along the simulated boundary of the cylindrical scrubber bed.

The assumptions of this simulation are that CO2 production (diver workload) is constant throughout the simulation run, ventilatory flow through the canister is constant, the surrounding water temperature is constant at 50° F, and the canister was chilled to the water temperature before the “diver” started breathing through it.

The previous simulation conditions were similar except that the canister was toasty warm prior to immersion in frigid water.

To fully appreciate the fine detail of the imagery, click on the video frame then expand the video to full screen size (lower right symbol immediately after “You Tube”) and play back in 1080p High Definition mode.