In Diving, What is Best is Not Always Good

A Closed Circuit Rebreather diver in a Florida spring.

In technical or recreational rebreather diving, safety is a matter of personal choice. Wrong choices can turn deadly.

Some poor choices are made for expediency, while others are made with the best of intentions but based on faulty or incomplete information. As a diving professional, it is those latter choices that concern me the most.

David Shaw

A poignant and well documented diving fatality involved a record setting Australian diver, David Shaw. David was an Air Bus pilot for Cathay Pacific.

Professional pilots are immersed in a culture of safety, a culture that makes airline travel the surest means of long distance transport. David applied that same sort of attention to his diving, recording on his personal web site his detailed plans for a record setting dive to recover the body of a diver who died in the 890 feet (271 meter) deep Boemansgat Cave of South Africa 10-years prior to David’s ill-fated dive.

Despite his extensive preparations, David Shaw made a fatal mistake. Like those who fail to appreciate the threat of an approaching hurricane, David failed to recognize the risk of really deep diving with a rebreather.

Unlike other types of underwater breathing equipment, a rebreather is entirely breath powered. That means you must force gas entirely through the “breathing loop” with the power of your respiratory muscles. On a dive to 890 feet, you are exposed to 28 times normal pressure, and breathing gas more than five times denser than normal. The effort involved is enough to dismay some U.S. Navy divers at depths far less than David Shaw intended to dive. Yet in David’s own words, he had previously never had a problem with the effort of breathing.

“The Mk15.5 (rebreather) breathes beautifully at any depth. WOB (work of breathing) has never been an issue for me. Remember that when at extreme depth I am breathing a very high helium mixture though, which will reduce the gas density problem to a certain extent.”

He goes on to say, “I always use the best quality, fine-grained absorbent on major dives. The extra expense is worth it.”

“I have had 9:40 (9 hrs, 40 min duration) out of the canister and felt it still had more time available, but one needs to qualify that statement with a few other facts. Most of the time on a big dive I am laying quietly on deco (decompression), producing minimal CO2 (carbon dioxide).

In those words lie a prescription for disaster.

A rebreather scrubber canister containing granular absorbent through which a diver has to breathe.

David wanted to use a single rebreather that would accomplish two tasks — provide a long duration gas supply and CO2 absorbing capability for a dive lasting over nine hours, and provide a low work of breathing so he could ventilate adequately at the deepest depth. To ensure the “scrubber canister” would last as long as possible, he chose the finest grain size, most expensive sodalime available. His thought was, that was the best available.

Arguably, the two aims are incompatible. He could not have both a long duration sodalime fill and low breathing resistance.

Cartoon of breathing through a scrubber canister.

As illustrated in a previous blog posting, the smaller the size of granules you’re breathing through, the harder it is to breathe. Think of breathing through a child’s ball pit versus breathing through sand.

Perhaps if David had maintained a resting work rate throughout the deepest portion of his fatal dive, he might have had a chance of survival. After all, he had done it before.

But the unexpected happens. He became fouled and was working far harder to maintain control of the situation than he had anticipated. That meant his need to ventilate, to blow off carbon dioxide from his body, increased precipitously.

A sure sign of high breathing effort is that you cannot ventilate as much as is necessary to keep a safe level of carbon dioxide in your blood stream. CO2, which is highly toxic, can build rapidly in your blood, soon leading to unconsciousness. From the videotaped record, that is exactly what happened.

Purer A, Deason GA, Hammonds BH, Nuckols ML. The effects of pressure and particle size on CO2 absorption characteristics of High-Performance Sodasorb. Naval Coastal Systems Center Tech. Manual 349-82, 1982. (Click for larger image.)

Had David been fully aware of the insidious nature of carbon dioxide intoxication from under breathing (hypoventilating), he probably would have chosen an alternative method to conduct the dive.

One alternative would be to use a larger granule size absorbent in a rebreather at considerable depth (say, 100 meters and deeper), and reserve the fine-grain absorbent for use in a separate rebreather shallower than 100 meters.

David chose the fine-grain absorbent because of the longer dive duration it made possible. Although fine grains are more difficult to breathe through than large grain absorbent, fine grain absorbent lasts longer than large grain absorbent.

But that long duration is only needed during decompression which is accomplished far shallower than the deep portions of the dive. The time spent deep where work of breathing is a threat is quite short. He did not need the capabilities of a long duration, fine grain absorbent.

From the U.S. Navy experience, there are other problems with this dive which might have hastened the end result. A rapid and deep descent causes the oxygen pressure within the rebreather to climb to potentially dangerous levels; a phenomenon called oxygen overshoot. Thus he might have been affected somewhat by oxygen toxicity. A rapid descent might also have induced the High Pressure Nervous Syndrome which would affect manual dexterity.

While those contributing factors are speculative and not evident on the tape, the certainty of the physics of dense gas flow through granular chemical absorbent beds is an unavoidable fact.

No doubt, many have offered opinions on what caused David’s accident. I certainly do not claim to be intimately involved in all the details, nor familiar with all the theories offered to date. Nevertheless, David’s mistaken belief that using the “best absorbent” was the best thing for his dive, is a mistake that needs to be explained and communicated before this accident is repeated with a different diver in some other deep and dark place.

Click to go to the source document.















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.





A Look Inside Rebreather Scrubber Canisters, Part 2

Computer modeling allows you to see things that are invisible in real life.

The previous posting showed the complex thermal profiles generated in a rebreather canister found in closed-circuit underwater breathing apparatus during the CO2 absorption process. But heat generation is just part of the absorption process. Simulation allows you to see how the end product of CO2 absorption, calcium carbonate, gets deposited inside the canister.

To the right is calcite, a form of calcium carbonate. Divers never see crystals of calcite in the scrubber canister because sodalime granules are never completely converted to calcite. Typically, no more than 50% of the granules react completely with exhaled CO2.

The following images show the interior of a a scrubber canister as the sodalime granules begin reacting with exhaled CO2. When sodalime granules first begin to absorb CO2 the image becomes purple. With more CO2 the color turns reddish, and when all binding sites are filled with reacted CO2, the granule color becomes yellow.  

The more carbonate in a particular location in the granule bed, the more yellow the image.

The probability that an exothermic absorption reaction would occur is dependent on the granule temperature, the granule size, the number of granules and the number of sites available for reaction in each granule.

In the second image, CO2 absorption sites in the inlet to the canister were completely filled (thus showing yellow), and small pockets of absorption were extending up the canister walls.

When I saw the third computer-generated image, I was surprised. It showed that in the central portion of the absorbent bed, the moving thermal front seen in the previous post was leaving behind a calcited bed. However, sheets of calcium carbonate were forming on the outer surface of the canister, the coldest portion of the canister.

Initially that result was counter-intuitive. Then I realized that low temperature makes the odds very low that the first granule encountered would absorb CO2. All chemical reaction rates are temperature dependent, therefore exhaled CO2 would be very likely to proceed downstream to the next granule. There again the odds of being absorbed would be low so the CO2 molecule would continue downstream.

However, given enough opportunities, even low probability events eventually occur. That means that along the cold canister walls, carbonate begins to be deposited much further downstream than in the warmest, and most highly reactive portion of the bed.

Unfortunately, the low probability of CO2 absorption in cold granules means that CO2 hugging the cold canister walls is likely to pass completely through the canister, unabsorbed. Chances are also high that the same molecule would be shunted to a different portion of the canister on its second pass through the canister, and therefore would eventually be reabsorbed.

The following link is to a high definition video showing carbonate deposition in a cylindrical scrubber canister as the simulated diver plunges into icy water. For best effect go to full screen and 1080p mode.



Further details about the computer simulation involved in the production of these images and video can be found in the paper “Computer Modeling of the Kinetics of CO2 Absorption in Rebreather Scrubber Canisters”, in MTS/IEEE OCEANS 2001 Conference Proceedings, published by the Marine Technology Society; Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers; Oceanic Engineering Society (U.S.); IEEE Xplore (Online service).