How Will You Try to Kill Me?

Émile Jean-Horace Vernet-The Angel of Death

It’s been over three years since I posted a cautionary tale about oxygen sensors in rebreathers, and the calamities they can cause. Since then, the toll of divers lured to their death has been steadily mounting. In one week alone in April 2016, at almost the same geographical latitude in Northern Florida, there were two diving fatalities involving rebreathers. It is an alarming and continuing trend.

I know a highly experienced diver who starts each dive by looking at his diving equipment, his underwater life support system, and asking it that title question: How will you try to kill me today?

This deep cave diver, equally at home with open circuit scuba and electronic rebreathers, is not a bold cave diver. He is exceptionally cautious, because he is also the U.S. Navy’s diving accident investigator. He has promised me that his diving equipment will never end up in our accident equipment cage.

He and I have seen far too many of the diving follies where underwater life support systems fail their divers. But the crucible in which those fatal failures are often born are errors of commission or omission by the deceased.

Carelessness and an attitude of “it can’t happen to me” seem all too prevalent, even among the best trained divers. Divers are human, and humans make mistakes. Statistically, those accidents happen across all lines of experience: from novice divers, to experienced professional and governmental divers, and even military divers. They all make mistakes that can, and often do, prove fatal.

It is exceedingly rare that a life support system fails all by itself, since by design they are robust, and have either simple, fool-proof designs, or redundancy. In theory a single failure should not bring a diver to his end.
The “head”, triplicate oxygen sensors, oxygen solenoid and wiring leading to the rebreather CPU. Image from


Are oxygen sensors trying to kill you? That depends on how old they are? Are they in date? Ignoring the expiration date on chocolate chip cookies probably won’t kill you, but ignoring the expiration date on oxygen sensors may well prove fatal. Complex systems like rebreathers depend upon critical subsystems that cannot be neglected without placing the diver at risk.

Oxygen sensors are usually found in triplicate, but if one or more are going bad during a dive, the diver and the rebreather can receive false warnings of oxygen content in the gas being breathed.  We have seen a rebreather computer “black box” record two sensor failures, and it’s CPU logic deduced that the single working sensor was the one in error.

The controller’s programmed logic forced it to ignore the good sensor, and thus the controller continued to open the oxygen solenoid and add oxygen in an attempt to make the two dying sensors read an appropriately high O2. Eventually, the diver, ignoring or not understanding various alarms he was being given, went unconscious due to an oxygen-induced seizure. His oxygen level was too high, not too low.

Unlike fuel for a car or airplane, you can have too much oxygen.

Oxygen sensors do not fail high, but they do fail low, due to age. Rebreather manufacturers should add that fact into their decision logic tree before triggering inaccurate alarms. But ultimately, it’s the diver’s responsibility to examine his own oxygen sensor readings and figure out what is happening. The analytical capability of the human brain should far exceed the capability of the rebreather CPU, at least for the foreseeable future.

JAKSA high pressure 6-volt solenoid used in a Megalodon rebreather. NEDU photo.

Oxygen addition solenoids hold back the flow of oxygen from a rebreather oxygen bottle until a voltage pulse from the rebreather controller signals it to open momentarily. The oxygen flow path is normally kept closed by a spring inside the solenoid, holding a plunger down against its seat.

But solenoids can fail on occasion, which means they will not provide life giving oxygen to the diver. The diver must then either manually add oxygen using an addition valve, or switch to bailout gas appropriate for the depth.

Cut-away diagram of a 24-volt Jaksa 200 bar solenoid.

Through either accident or design, divers have been known to invert their solenoid spring and plunger, thereby keeping the gas flow open. In that case, oxygen could not be controlled except by manually turning on and off the valve to the oxygen tank. Of course, knowing when oxygen is too low or too high would depend upon readings from the oxygen sensors.

Suffice it to say that such action would be extremely reckless. And if the oxygen sensors were old, and thus reading lower than the true oxygen partial pressure, the diver would be setting himself up for a fatal oxygen seizure. It has happened.

Assuming a solenoid has not been tampered with, alarms should warn the diver that either the solenoid has failed, or that the partial pressure of oxygen is dropping below tolerance limits.

But as the following figures reveal, if the diver does not react quickly enough to add oxygen manually, or switch to bail out gas, they might not make it to the surface.

The three figures below are screen captures from U.S. Navy software written by this author, that models various types of underwater breathing apparatus, rebreathers and scuba. In the setup of the model, an electronically controlled, constant PO2 rebreather is selected. In the next screen various rebreather parameters are selected, and in this case we model a very small oxygen bottle, simulating an oxygen solenoid failure during a dive. On another screen, a 60 feet sea water for 60 minutes dive is planned, with the swimming diver’s average oxygen consumption rate set at 1.5 standard liters per minute.

Screen shot 3Screen shot 2










On the large screen shot below, we see a black line representing diver depth as a function of time (increasing from the dashed grey line marked 0, to 60 fsw), a gray band of diver mouth pressure, and an all-important blue line showing the partial pressure of inspired oxygen as it initially increases as the diver descends, then overshoots, and finally settles off at the predetermined control level of oxygen partial pressure (in this case 1.3 atmospheres). Broken lines on the very bottom of the graph show automated activation of diluent add valve, oxygen add solenoid, and over pressure relief valve. Long horizontal colored dashes show critical levels of oxygen partial pressure, normal oxygen level (cyan) and the limit of consciousness (red).

Screen shot 1
Screen shot of UBASim results after an ill-fated 60 fsw dive.

The oxygen solenoid fails 53.7 minutes into the dive, no longer adding oxygen. Therefore the diver’s inhaled oxygen level begins to drop. Rather than follow the emergency procedures, or perhaps being oblivious to the emergency, this simulated diver begins an ascent. As ambient pressure drops during the ascent, the drop in oxygen pressure increases.

In this particular example, 62.5 minutes after the dive began, and at a depth of 13.5 feet, the diver loses consciousness. With the loss of consciousness, the diver’s survival depends on many variables; whether he’s wearing a full face mask, whether he sinks or continues to ascend, or is rescued immediately by an attentive boat crew or buddy diver. It’s a crap shoot.

So basically, the rebreather tried to kill the diver, but he would only die if he ignored repeated warnings and neglected emergency procedures.

What about your rebreather’s carbon dioxide scrubber canister? Do you know what the canister duration will be in cold water at high work rates? Do you really know, or are you and the manufacturer guessing? What about the effect of depth, or helium or trimix gas mixes? Where is the data upon which you are betting your life, and how was it acquired?

Scrubber canister and sodalime. NEDU Photo
NEDU photo.












Sadly, few rebreathers have dependable and well calibrated carbon dioxide sensors; which is unfortunate because a depleted or “broken through” scrubber canister can kill you just as dead as a lack of oxygen. The only difference is a matter of speed; carbon dioxide will knock you out relatively slowly, compared to a lack of oxygen.

But if you think coming up from a dive with a headache is normal, then maybe you should rethink that. It could be that your rebreather is trying to kill you.





Computer Simulation as Art — or Rorschach Test

No one has ever confused me for an artist.

I might have been visually gifted as a 3rd-grader, as my parents told it, at least compared to my peers. However, I never seemed to progress beyond that point. I think my progress slowed about the time I saw my first Rorschach test.

I realized then that some people’s art is someone else’s diagnosis. After all, it is no fun to look at an ink blot abstraction, to voice an opinion about it, only to have an authority figure nod his head and write in his notebook as he says, “I see,” when obviously he didn’t.

Clinical trauma aside, I now know that all humanity looks instinctively for visual patterns and searches for meaning in patterns whether they be random or not. There is a survival aspect to that of course; if we detect a tiger’s stripes partly hidden in a confused background of woodland scenery, that offers a potential survival benefit.

Sometimes, even the most mundane things turn out to be “pretty”. Such were the images I saw being formed on my computer screen the other day. The more I looked at them, the more interesting they became. They were like my own Rorschach test, in a very literal way. They were random patterns based on random processes, but my brain refused to look at them that way. They appeared to me as images of natural things, representing anything except what they truly were.

The image to the left, for instance, looked to me like a view through a telescope of a star field with at least one galaxy situated near the center axis.

Or in a very biological way, it might be the view through an immunofluorescence microscope.

The next image looked to me like a view of a placid star seen in ultraviolet light. I could almost feel the blistering heat radiating through space.

Alternatively, it might be a view of a human egg waiting patiently for fertilization, an altogether different interpretation, but like the first, being a necessary component of creation.

The final image looked to me like a cooler star but with clearly visible solar prominences, magnetic storms arcing over the hellish nuclear surface.

I have no idea what others might see in these images, if anything, but I’m guessing each image can be interpreted differently based on one’s own life experiences.

And that after all is the whole point of art, and Rorschach tests.



The above images were created as part of a random, or stochastic, simulation of rebreather scrubber canisters. They are a view of the upstream end of an axial canister, and shows the state of the canister as heat producing carbon dioxide absorption reactions are beginning.

The cooler looking the canister, the less the amount of exhaled carbon dioxide entering the canister.

The simulation tracks chemical reactions and heat and mass transfer processes in an array of 272,000 finite elements making up a simple absorbent canister. Slicer Dicer and 3VO software (PIXOTEC, LLC) were used to visualize the three-dimensional data set acquired during one moment in time shortly after the simulated reactions began.



A Look Inside Rebreather Scrubber Canisters, Part 1

If you’re diving a rebreather (closed-circuit breathing apparatus to be exact), then you know the scrubber removes carbon dioxide from your recirculated breath. Without the scrubber working, you’d go unconscious from carbon dioxide intoxication within a very few minutes of starting the dive.

But do you really know what’s going on inside that scrubber canister?

A stochastic computer simulation developed by the author gives as realistic a glimpse inside as we can get.

Loose granular and rolled sodalime. Click to enlarge.

Carbon dioxide scrubber canisters usually contain a chemical mixture called sodalime that chemically reacts with carbon dioxide in a diver’s expired breath. That material may be in granular form, or in a preformed roll. Sodalime is a mixture of calcium hydroxide and sodium hydroxide, which when it reacts by absorbing carbon dioxide is converted into calcium carbonate (CaCO3, calcite), a major constituent of limestone.

The overall chemical reaction can be simplified to:

CO2 + Ca(OH)2 → CaCO3 + H2O + heat

In the following sequence of images we see a rectangular prism shaped scrubber canister arranged axially such that the diver’s expired breath enters the section from the left, passing completely through the canister section before exiting to the right. A portion of the canister was cut away digitally after the simulation was run to allow visualization of temperatures within the canister interior.

Beginning of the simulation. Click to enlarge.

Initially, the canister is at room temperature, and then is immersed in cold water as the diver begins his dive. Temperature is color coded: the coldest temperature is black, and increasing warmth is portrayed in an intuitive fashion from purple to red to yellow, and finally white, being the highest temperature.

In the first image, CO2 has just started reacting with the sodalime at the entrance to the canister section, with a slight heating resulting. Thermal conduction is cooling the exterior surface of the canister, but most of the inside still remains at room temperature.

In the second image, the reaction front has clearly formed, and the hottest portion of the canister has begun moving downstream. Convection carries heat rapidly downstream to heat the diver’s inspired breath, and is seen to offset canister cooling due to conduction from the surrounding cold water.

Click to enlarge

In the image to the left, the heating front is fully developed, and residual heat has spread almost completely throughout the downstream portion of the canister.

In the next image, to the right, the front is beginning to weaken in intensity.




Finally (lower left figure), the thermal heating in the reaction front, indicative of CO2 absorption effectiveness, is fading out, and the cooling of the canister from the surrounding cold water is beginning to win the tug of war between heat generation and conductive cooling.

At that point in time, the canister is spent, and essentially all of the exhaled CO2 is passing right through the canister without being absorbed. If the diver had not ended his dive before his canister reached this point, he would be at great risk of passing out due to CO2 accumulation.

The last figure (lower right) shows temperature readings at various locations, and at various times (reps) throughout the simulation run. The orange and brown traces marked “temp” are measured temperatures from locations near the entrance to the canister. They rise abruptly as the absorption reactions start, and fall quickly as the reaction front moves past them, downstream.

Click to enlarge

The curves that remain elevated longer represent the average exhaled gas temperature, and the average temperature within the absorbent bed. After reaching a peak, the average bed temperature steadily drops as cold gas from the inlet (exhaled) gas chills the portion of the bed behind the reaction front. Exhaled gas temperature, on the other hand, climbs more slowly, but remains more stable until the bed becomes depleted of absorbent activity.

The monitoring of absorbent canister temperature changes is what makes the rebreather scrubber canister monitors used in the Inspiration and Sentinel rebreathers possible. The Sentinel technology is licensed from the U.S. Navy Experimental Diving Unit.

In the next posting, we’ll see the surprising way that cold canisters fill up with calcium carbonate.










The following is a high definition video of the computer simulation of heat generation and loss in a short cylindrical canister. 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).