What Will Divers Do When the Helium is Gone?

Helium is a low density, non-narcotic gas often added to the breathing gas mixture of divers who have to dive deep. Nitrogen, the primary component of air is both dense, making it hard to breathe when diving deep, and narcotic at depths below one hundred feet. That is why nitrogen leads to the so-called “rapture of the deep.” Narcotic divers make bad decisions.

If it weren’t for helium, some of the deepest and most sensitive diving for national security would never have happened. So, it’s really important. Commercial saturation diving in the oil fields of the North Atlantic and the Gulf of Mexico is wholly dependent on the easy to breathe and non-narcotic properties of helium.

Both civilian and government science divers, technical divers, and underwater cave explorers have been able to extend their diving range and safety because of helium in their breathing gas.

Helium graphic from the cover of a 2016 report on helium supply shortages by the American Physical Society, the American Chemical Society, and the Materials Research Society. — Image credit – Ashley Mumford

For those not familiar with the second lightest gas in the periodic table, I’ve included a Fast Fact from the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) at the end of this post.

There are two drawbacks to helium. A source of breathable helium is sometimes hard to locate, and the gas is expensive. Because of that expense and growing scarcity, it is forecast to become increasingly difficult to find, especially in remote locations.

From a Science Direct article, “Ongoing ascent to the helium production plateau – Insights from System Dynamics” in Resources Policy, Vol. 35, Issue 2, June 2010, pgs 77-89.

The primary source of helium, a non-renewable resource, is from gas wells. As shown in the BLM summary at the bottom of this post, the demand for helium is high in scientific, medical, military, and commercial applications.

Cryomodules for an x-ray light source LCLS-II are under construction at Fermilab in Illinois. The cryomodules will house superconducting cavities that are cooled with liquid helium. Credit: Reidar Hahn.

Not on the list, and the least likely to be considered during allocation of an increasingly scarce resource, is civilian diving, and perhaps even military diving.

The above graphical projection made in 2010 does not consider the damping effect of current government policies which make drilling oil and gas wells, and fossil fuels in general, undesirable. While Qatar and Russia have significant helium reserves, helium transported from distant countries will come with a much higher price tag than forecast in 2010. Unfortunately, no one has so far calculated the net cost of reducing the recovery of gas from the ground, and the recovery of the helium contained in that natural gas.

Why might the next century bring a lowering of helium prices as predicted in the graph above? As I’ve explained in Atmosphere, Book 3 of the Jason Parker Trilogy, fusion reactors should hopefully be common place by then, and helium is a byproduct of those fusion reactions. Of course, the above graph reflects a great deal of uncertainty about the next century, even without the uncertainty introduced by government policies. But our immediate concern is this century, not the next.

One approach to helium conservation is by using rebreathers to conserve gas rather than exhaust it into the water column, as is done in open circuit diving like that pictured in the first underwater photo with two Navy divers. In rebreathers, the only helium wasted is that used to keep breathing bags inflated on descent. Unfortunately, that gas is “burped-off” as gas expands on ascent. But the amount of inert gas wasted during rebreather operations is still far less than in open-circuit diving.

A Navy EX-19 rebreather being tested in Morrison Springs, FL. Navy photo by Bernie Campoli.

Another option for holding down helium cost, is to use helium in “Trimix”, a mixture of oxygen, nitrogen and helium. Such mixes become popular for use at depths of 200 feet sea water (fsw) and deeper. It minimizes the cost of helium while simultaneously reducing the effect of nitrogen narcosis.

A common trimix is called 21/35, which has 21 percent oxygen, 35 percent helium and 44 percent nitrogen. Another common mixture is 18/45, with 18 percent oxygen and 45 percent helium. Those helium percentages are considerably reduced from that found in a typical military heliox mixture containing no nitrogen.

But even then, using helium for recreational deep diving may become far too expensive for any but the richest recreational divers. Already, it’s reported that scientific and medical instruments like superconducting magnets and MRI machines have been affected by helium shortages.

Here are some relevant links from Science Direct and the American Institute of Physics.

When it comes to the DoD prioritization of military saturation diving missions compared to other military options, the availability and cost of helium will inevitability factor into the high-level decision tree.

So, is there an alternative to helium use in diving? Well, yes and no. I’ve written in both this blog and in my novels about the use of hydrogen in diving, as has a biomedical researcher friend of mine, Susan Kayar, Ph.D. in her novel, Operation Second Starfish.

Hydrogen is even lighter than helium, but at great depth it is narcotic. One strange thing about hydrogen narcosis is that at great depth it can result in psychotic manifestations in some individuals. Also, at shallow depth, hydrogen can form an explosive mixture with oxygen, an issue I’ll discuss in my next post. So, it has to be used with great care and attention to details.

Interestingly, the math says that at 200 fsw, the depth where trimix is typically used, hydrogen can be safely substituted for helium. However, only experimentation can prove if that prediction is valid or not. But as helium gets scarcer and more expensive, using hydrogen in place of helium is something worth considering.

[DO NOT CONDUCT YOUR OWN EXPERIMENTS WITH HYDROGEN. THERE IS ALWAYS A CHANCE OF INJURY OR DEATH WITH HYDROGEN. THINK OF THE HINDERBURG!]

Below are links to other hydrogen and forward-looking diving posts in this blog.

Helium Fast Facts

Fact Sheet—BLM New Mexico Amarillo Field Office

Helium: Questions and Answers

What is helium?

Helium is an odorless, colorless, and tasteless gas. Helium, more than 99.9 percent pure, is also used in liquid form at -452 degrees Fahrenheit.

Where does helium come from?

Helium occurs with other gasses in pockets beneath the Earth’s surface. The most economical source of helium is natural gas, all of which contains some helium. Natural gas in the States of Texas, Kansas, Colorado, Utah, and Wyoming is richer in helium than what has been recovered from other States.

How is helium produced?

When a gas pocket containing economically recoverable amounts of helium is found, a well is drilled to release the gas. It travels by pipeline to a processing plant where the helium is separated from the other gasses. One method of separation is a cryogenic process, which uses cold temperature differences to split the components. Another process, membrane filtration, uses molecular size difference to split components.

What is helium used for?

Today, helium plays a prominent role in medical imaging (magnetic resonance imaging), fiber optics/semiconductor manufacturing, laser welding, leak detection, superconductivity development, aerospace, defense, and energy programs.

Is helium renewable (does it naturally replenish itself after humans use it)?

No, helium is a non-renewable resource. That is why the Federal Government stored 44 billion cubic feet of helium in a natural gas reservoir at Cliffside, just outside of Amarillo, Texas. Helium was injected into porous rock 3,000 feet below the Earth’s surface during the 1960s. This rock holds gas like a sponge holds water. Two layers of calcium anhydrite cover the rock, acting as a lid. The sides are surrounded by water.

The Sinking of the Montrose

“If it had been a snake, it would’ve bit me.”

That phrase is common in the Southern United States, often shouted in surprise when you’re vainly looking for something, and eventually discover it right in front of you.

Well, here’s an example of when the snake did bite, figuratively, and ended up sinking a ship.

The Ship

In 1962, the one-year-old, 5,000 ton displacement, 444-foot-long British freighter, the M/V Montrose, entered the Great Lakes after its fifth transatlantic voyage from its homeport of London, England. 

On June 30, 1962, it was docked at the Detroit Harbor Terminal taking on 200 tons of aluminum. Once the ship was fully loaded, a Canadian Great Lakes pilot boarded the ship at night to guide the vessel through the Detroit River, north towards Lake St. Clair and the other Great Lakes.

The River

The Detroit River connects Lake Erie at its southern end and runs generally northeast approximately 28 miles to Lake St. Clair at the north. It is bordered by Canada’s Ontario Province on the eastern side and Michigan in the United States on the opposite bank. The river’s strong current runs to the south towards Lake Erie.

The Collision

Now, imagine the chagrin of the Canadian pilot as he guided the vessel across the downside shipping lane to reach the upside lane on the Canadian side of the river. That course took it directly into the path of a heavily loaded barge on the American side, heading down the Detroit River. The resulting collision ripped a 48-foot long and as much as 24-feet wide gash in the ship’s port side bow.

The freighter immediately started flooding at the bow, soon raising the rudder and propellers out of the water. With no way to control the sinking ship, the crew and ship drifted in the strong Detroit River current, before running aground beneath the Ambassador Bridge connecting Detroit with the Canadian city of Windsor, Ontario.

The Montrose as it was foundering. Water was pouring in through a large gash in the bow’s port side.

This expensive mistake occurred in July, 1962, and I was there to record the aftermath, as were thousands of other onlookers. The links to other photos and videos are found below.

A fuzzy photo I took as a Bob-Lo excursion boat was moving past the starboard hull of the Montrose. The port side settled on the river bottom 35-feet down.

Sharper photos were taken by various civilians and published in the following link.

https://www.detroityes.com/mb/showthread.php?12005-1962-Ship-capsized-in-Detroit-River-under-Ambassador-also-gas-storage-tanks

A better photo of the starboard hull taken from a Bob-Lo boat approaching close to the wreck.
Photo taken from the opposite shore. About a third of the ship’s deck and superstructure is visible.

I imagine that salvage or other commercial divers were required to inspect the hull and attach lifting cables at the appropriate points. Typically, they might have wanted to weld patching plates over the huge gash in the hull. But the ship lay on its damaged side, so no patches could be applied until the ship was righted.

View of the stern of the wreck from the Ambassador Bridge connecting the U.S. and Canada.

I wish I had those divers’ stories, but so far, I haven’t found any. Salvage divers tend not to talk about their arduous, risky, and sometimes horrifying work. Fortunately, this time there were no casualties. Every crew member on both vessels was rescued, having suffered minimal injuries.

The salvage plan involved righting and raising the vessel using large floating cranes on barges. Frankly, I cannot imagine the load on those lifting cables. But as you can see in following photo, there were many cables attached to the bow preventing the ship from drifting further down current. They likely helped stabilize the craft once the bow was partially above water.

The ship after the bow had been partially raised.

No doubt a great deal of engineering calculations (and maybe educated guesses?) went into determining the number and placement of those cables. Salvage engineering is a torturous task, with calculations at that time being done by hand or using a slip stick (slide rule).

Below is a National Museum of American History slide rule identical to my personal Pickett slide rule, Model N1010-ES Trig. A similar slide rule accompanied the Apollo astronauts to the moon.

Digital calculators and computers were not readily available in 1962.

The following link is from the Lake Shore Guardian, and contains ample details of the accident. It is an interesting account. http://www.lakeshoreguardian.com/site/news/1037/MV-Montrose#.YDgVd-hKiUk

Analysis

So, how could highly experienced and qualified seamen drive their ship at full speed directly into the path of a well-lighted barge, as was reported by the ensuing investigation?

The Lakeshore Guardian report does not give it a name, but I will: “cognitive blindness.” Cognitive blindness in trained and alert individuals often occurs when people are distracted. In this case, that distraction was another freighter pulling into the same berth the Montrose was attempting to vacate. The Montrose pilot made all ahead full to keep a safe separation from the ship coming in close behind it.

In their distracted state, they did not see the navigation lights from the oncoming barge, did not hear the barge’s warning whistles and horn blasts, and never responded with their own emergency signal until the last second. By then, it was too late to slow their ship, or dodge the barge.

Cognitive blindness caused by distraction has caused old and experienced automobile drivers to pull directly in front of oncoming vehicles. One such fatal accident occurred at an intersection my wife and I frequently traverse. The driver was physically capable of seeing the oncoming traffic, but in that and similar cases, their brain must not have recognized the danger.

In the link below, the U.S. radio program NPR interviewed Christopher Chabris and Daniel Simmons about their book, named after the psychologist’s invisible gorilla test. 

https://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=129934804

The two psychologists had subjects watch a basketball game. Subjects were instructed to keep track of the number of ball passes between players. However, that objective was a distraction. The researchers really wanted to know if their research subjects noticed a man in a gorilla suit walking across the court. Remarkably, more than 50% of the test subjects never saw the gorilla.

A distraction while watching a video may be harmless, but a distraction while piloting a 5,000 ton vessel can, and was, disastrous. Luckily, no lives were lost, that time.

Among the multitude of other writings about the potential effect of distractions, is a new book on human factors.

While the work of Gareth Lock is focused on diving, the psychological factors it discusses apply across all disciplines, including seamanship. Chapter 7, Situational Awareness, has an interesting and relevant sub title: “Just because it’s there, it doesn’t mean you’ve recognized its significance.”

In summary, the deleterious effect of cognitive blindness can be found in all disciplines, including combat, aviation, diving, driving, space and seafaring.

As they say in combat, “The enemy you don’t see is the one that will kill you.”

The highlighted image at the top of this post is from the Walter P. Reuther Library at Wayne State University. http://reuther.wayne.edu/node/4331

“Capt. Ralph Eyre-Walker stands on the side of his wrecked British freighter, ‘The Montrose’. The freighter collided with a cement barge and sank in the Detroit River just downstream of the Ambassador Bridge, Detroit, Michigan.”

Photographer’s (Tony Spina) note: “I rode out with the captain the next day so he could get some of his belongings and captured this shot.”

Canoeing the Little Nianqua River in the Ozarks

“Nianqua” means “many springs” in the Osage language. It’s those little springs that make canoeing down the Little Nianqua river a favorite pastime for adventurers. The Little Nianqua is a tributary of the Nianqua River which empties into the Mississisppi.

In between freshman and sophomore year in college (September of 1966), a high school friend from the Presbyterian Church near our home in Kansas City, KS, suggested we take a canoe trip in the Ozarks about 150 miles southeast of Kansas City.

The portion of the Little Nianqua normally canoed is about 35 miles, and with time out for climbing the over-looming bluffs, visiting Osage sites and generally goofing around, we would have to spend the night sleeping on a sandbar, propping the canoe over us for protection. It sounded like great fun.

A photo of me canoeing while Richard Thorn photographed from a sand bar.

Here was the goofing around part. I made an emergency outrigger out of a barrel and some limbs.

It sort of worked.  At least it didn’t sink.

Improvised overnight accommodations.
Richard on the lookout for girls. He didn’t find any.

Those bluffs were pretty high, but of course we felt compelled to climb them.

Below is a view of our sandbar encampment from the bluff.

Apparently, Richard was not aware that the spirit of the departed Osage do not like to be disturbed. Otherwise, he would not have perched on an Osage burial mound.

Richard tempting fate.

Spirits Revenge

Shortly after we returned home, Richard and I borrowed my family’s 55 Buick Special and went to a drive in. I was almost 21 years old, so I felt inspired to procure a gallon of Ripple wine. I have no idea what the movie was about, but Ripple actually tasted better than its reputation.

Unfortunately, the spirits of the Osage decided at that moment to seek their revenge. Richard spilled half of the gallon of Ripple, inside the Buick.

Our feeble attempt to soak up the wine and clean the interior was of no avail. No matter what we did, the car stank of cheap wine.

As luck would have it, we both had to head back to college almost immediately. As soon as I was back in Georgia, my parents  traded in their one and only car. Somehow, I doubt they got much for it.

I lost touch with Richard Thorn when my parents sold the house in Prairie Village, threw out my child-hood toys (for spite maybe?), hopped into their station wagon with that fresh, new car smell, and headed to a warmer clime, southeast Texas.

Strangely enough, they never said anything to me about that Ripple event. But I guess, compared to my flying off with the keys to the Buick when I flew back to Atlanta the previous January, without enough gas in the car for Dad to make it home, and having poor Dad walk to a gas station, in a snowstorm, well, the Ripple event simply paled in comparison.

However, that “no-keys event”, they did tell me about.

I guess the lesson is, respect the spirits of the dead, or you will pay in ways you cannot imagine.

Perhaps you have read about the Osage in my novels. The Osage ancestral lands were located in Missouri around the Ozarks and over to the Mississippi River. Reportedly, French fur traders found the Osage women to be quite attractive. So much so that supposedly, many of the traders married Osage women.

A young Osage mother and child.

In spite of that intermarriage, when land-hungry settlers moved from Tennessee to Arkansas and Missouri, the government relocated the Osage to Oklahoma, right next to the relocated Cherokees. In fact, to this day, Pawhuska, Oklahoma, a town I’ve visited and written about, is the current home of the Osage Nation.

About the only Osage thing the white man did not replace, was the name of their river in Missouri, the Nianqua.

In summary, if you’re so inclined, have fun canoeing the Little Niangua. But do be careful where you tread.

Autohemotherapy Saved My Brother

In 1940, my older brother, Albert, was born prematurely, with a severe case of ichthyosis (skin with scales like fish.)

Due to Albert’s prematurity, at birth his entire body fit in the palm of my father’s hand. Albert had no suckling reflex, and so the pediatrician said there was nothing that could be done to save him. The newborn was doomed.

Based on the above information, I would place the baby’s fetal development at roughly 2/3rds of the way through the second trimester, perhaps at 22 weeks, close to a pound in weight and at most eight inches from the top of his head to his rump. He would have been below the now standard 24 week “age of survivability.” Survival at that stage of prematurity was unlikely.

Dr. Albert S.J. Clarke, an orthopedic surgeon, was my Dad. The infant at risk was Dad’s first child, named after him (Albert Sidney Johnston Clarke III.) Being a physician, Dad was not going to give up on his son without a fight.

Due to Albert’s small size, and the condition of his skin, they were unable to start an I.V., which is the standard of care in today’s medical world. So, as my Mother explained it, as a last resort, Dad withdrew his own blood and injected it into the gluteal muscles of the baby. That blood carried nutrition and sustenance to Albert; e.g., water, minerals, protein, sugar.

That was not as crazy as it seems, since Autohemotherapy was used in the early 20th century to treat dermatological cases, starting in 1913. The following abstract is an example of a 1928 article after the method gained some medical acceptance.

Quoting from the abstract, “Autohemotherapy, first used in dermatologic conditions by Ravaut (1913), closely followed by Spiethoff (1913), consists in the withdrawal of blood … and its injection into the patient’s gluteal muscles, preferably.”

By the 1940’s, Dr. Clarke was no doubt aware of the questionable therapeutic efficacy of the old method, but as a means of delivering fluid and nutrition to an infant otherwise shut-off from the world, there was nothing to lose. Their blood types matched, so in theory, a blood injection would not hurt.

Although the Rh factor was just discovered that year (1940), Albert’s odds of survival were likely assured by the fact that most people are Rh positive.

At the beginning of the 20th century, there was virtually no standard of care for premature infants. Julius H. Hess (1876–1955) published the first book on the subject of medical care for the premature infant in 1922.

In that book, Hess described tube feeding, or gavage, as in the illustration below. However, in the following years, infants often died from aspiration pneumonia induced by early feeding after birth, and early-applied gavage fell out of favor.

A year after my father successfully salvaged my brother, Hess amended his guidance in his 1941 text, writing “Small premature babies (those weighing under 1200 g) were not fed for 24–48 h …. During this time the premature baby receives physiologic salt solution, subcutaneously in the thighs, one to three times daily.”

Obviously, physiological saline solution avoids the risk of incompatible blood reactions, but in the case of that baby and his father-physician, God had blessed them with fully compatible blood types.

I don’t know if Hess had been made aware of my Dad’s lifesaving treatment conducted a year before Hess made his latest recommendation, but that is certainly possible.

I never discussed with Dad the details of his saving intervention, but from what I’ve read about babies with ichthyosis, my brother’s survival and thriving until age 73 is a bit of a miracle. His pediatricians gave him zero chance of surviving his first days. They didn’t know just how determined my Father could be.

Due to my brother’s genetic skin disease, he shed skin in large flakes; his bed sheets were always covered in them. He had to be lathered in Vaseline to keep his brittle skin from cracking too deeply, and bleeding. He also had very poor tolerance to heat because he had few if any functioning sweat glands.

In spite of his disability, Albert was one of the nation’s first Respiratory Therapists. He trained other Respiratory Therapists in west coast colleges, and ran several Respiratory Therapy Departments in hospitals across the country.

With unlimited medical research libraries at his disposal, he discovered on his own that a drug used for treating psoriasis helped him control his own skin condition. As a result, his quality of life in his last decades greatly improved. He fulfilled a dream of remarrying, all made possible by a determined physician willing to take a chance when the “experts” had given up hope.

Dr. A.S.J. Clarke, M.D. in his later years.

Today, thanks to advances in the medical management of premature infants, autohemotherapy is medically unnecessary. In fact, many doubters question its efficacy. However, I have the physical scars from growing up with a rambunctious big brother to prove that, in at least one case, it was a lifesaver.

Where is Pham-lỷ-Täi?

The word “pen pals” was recently in the news.

In the 1960s, students were taught U.S and World History. Long before the days of personal computers and the Internet, we high school students were encouraged to expand our perspective by becoming pen pals with other students around the world.

Of course, back then, the phrase “pen pal” literally meant using a pen to write, preferably in cursive or some reasonable facsimile.

Perhaps it was through the Weekly Reader that I first exchanged mail and photos with a gorgeous blond girl from Denmark. But by far the most memorable, and longest lasting pen pal relationship, was with a student from Saigon (later renamed Ho Chi Minh City.)

Pham-lỷ-Täi was a Vietnamese school boy with precisely written English. He told me that he and his family were Catholic. They lived in Saigon where his father worked for the South Vietnamese government, if I remember correctly.

As we wrote, we exchanged bits of national culture. He sent me a tall doll of a Vietnamese woman in long silk dress and hat (the Asian conical Nón lá). But as the years progressed, our written conversation turned more serious, towards the growing signs of war.

In 1964 as I was nearing graduation from Shawnee Mission East High School, in Prairie Village, Kansas, there were thousands of U.S. advisers in South Vietnam. The August 1964 Gulf of Tonkin incident had not yet happened, so while Pham-lỷ-Täi was uneasy, outright hostilities had not yet broken out.

However, about the time I left home for college in September, the letter chain was broken, and fighting began in earnest.

As history revealed, the war did not end well for either American and allied troops (Australia, New Zealand, and other forces), or the people of South Vietnam. Democracy was crushed. For well-educated Christians in government service, the consequences were more dire.

Communists seek out the best educated and most pious people, and kill them. That is what communist revolutions invariably do. Indeed, it is a sobering exercise to research the numbers of national citizens killed by Mao, Stalin, and Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge. There were literally millions of citizens killed in each communist revolution.

I was in Army training in 1975 with a Cambodian officer at the beginning of the genocide of the Cambodian people by the Communist Khmer Rouge. Our class of American Officers urged the young man to stay in the country, fearing he would be killed if he returned home. But sadly, out of duty to his nation and to his family, he refused to stay in the U.S.

There is no doubt that his skull is one of the many skulls found in Pol Pot’s killing fields.

Pham ly Tai’s fate was less certain. Did he take up arms to lead the defense of his country? Did he perish in combat? Did he perhaps escape by boat, like my family physician, Dzung Nguyen, did as a child?

Was his family perhaps given diplomatic escort out of Saigon on the last American helicopters out?

I don’t know. If anyone does know, I would greatly appreciate hearing, one way or the other.

However, my fear is that like my Cambodian officer friend, duty kept Pham-lỷ-Täi home to face the onslaught.

For a long time, I had forgotten about my old pen pal. However, many decades later I was on a Taiwanese airline, Eva Air, headed to Taipei and eventually, Bangkok. This particular Eva Air flight had an odd Hello Kitty theme, inside and out. It catered to children. Strangely, I found myself surrounded by youngsters from Vietnam returning from Los Angeles and Disney World during their summer break.

In the seat next to me was a young lady from Ho Chi Minh City, and across the aisle were her female classmates. She no doubt noticed I was an American male of an age which could have placed me in Vietnam during the war. Apparently, that worried her. So, as the flight leveled off at altitude, my seatmate broke the ice by asking in her best English only one sentence.

“Are you mad?”

Seeing real concern in her eyes, and sensing a memory of things she might have heard about the war, I answered, “No, I am not mad.”

There were many more things I could have asked, such as, “Are you mad?” But her English was faltering, and my Vietnamese was non-existent. What I was thinking at that point was far too complex to speak simply. So, my answer, “No, I am not mad,” was the only way I could answer her curious question.

For sure, I could not be mad at a child who was not even alive during the Vietnam war. She and her friends had nothing to do with what happened to her countrymen, and ours.

From a different perspective, I wondered how my friends who were in combat in Vietnam would have answered. But I suspect, being good men and women all, they would not have held a grudge for half a lifetime. War is hell, but only the Communist leaders directed the killing of those who opposed them, for political purposes. The children are innocent.

I thought about telling that girl, maybe fifteen years of age, how I used to have a friend in Saigon, a boy about her age. If Pham-lỷ-Täi lived, perhaps he would have a granddaughter about her age. I wished, insanely I suppose, that the girl in the seat beside me was one of his granddaughters. If so, then I would know he survived.

But, for some reason, I did not ask her.

It’s strange the things you think about when crossing large oceans.

Once in Taipei, I was pleasantly surprised to see my former seatmate with her school friends looking my way, all smiles and giggles. They seemed to be pleased to meet an American of my generation who was not mad at them.

Of course I was not mad at a child. I never could be.

But I did remember a Vietnamese boy I knew a long time ago. He seemed to be a natural leader, a potential politician with strong ethics, a young man who would face death to save his country from communism.

So, I still wonder, what happened to my pen pal, Pham-lỷ-Täi?

In February of 2021, I came across the movie, Ride the Thunder- A Vietnam War Story of Victory and Betrayal. To my taste, the acting is a bit melodramatic, but I do believe I have a better understanding of what might have happened to my friend. If he and his family had not been killed outright by the Communists, he might had suffered a fate worse than death, Communist reeducation camps. The movie and book has been praised for telling the brutal truth. And apparently, the most compelling truth is revealed by  Major Le La Binh, a South Vietnamese officer who after the war was held in those “reeducation camps.”

Sadly, that newly revealed ending of the Vietnam war does not bode well for my friend, Pham-lỷ-Täi.

The Basic Chemistry of Nitrogen Dioxide

“The U.S. President was on the phone with the President of China when a video from the International Space Station came in from the NASA feed to the Emergency Operations Center. A huge burnt-orange cloud was covering the entire southern Pacific, extending all the way up to Hawaii and down to New Zealand. This was no ordinary nuclear explosion.”

The recent deadly explosion in Beirut, and the science fiction thriller, Atmosphere, book 3 of the Jason Parker Trilogy, both involve a toxic, brownish-orange gas, nitrogen dioxide. Of course, one involvement is fictional, and the other, sadly, is not.

From the first chapter of Atmosphere, we find a description of the effects of a gamma ray burst hitting the Earth. “Rampaging winds began spreading toxic nitrogen dioxide clouds around the planet, and within days, the earth was fully affected.”

Considering the violence with which nitrogen dioxide is associated, the way it is created is relatively simple. Some chemists will no doubt claim that the following discussion is too simplistic, but I’ll let them fill in the blanks, if they so choose. As advertised, this is just the basics.

Given enough energy, and localized temperatures on the order of 3000°C, nitrogen molecules (two atoms of nitrogen, N2) combine with oxygen molecules (two atoms of oxygen, O2) to form a chemically unstable gas, nitric oxide, NO.

In chemical terms, N2 + O2 → 2NO

If the searing NO gas is cooled rapidly in the presence of oxygen molecules, the toxic, brownish-orange gas, nitrogen dioxide, is formed.

2NO + O2 → 2NO2.  (This is really nasty stuff!)

It’s been known since at least 1911 that the temperature of an electrical arc (6000° – 8000°C) is enough to cause N2 and O2 to form NO. If the hot gaseous NO is then rapidly cooled, NO2 results.

In the science fiction novel, NO2 was created high in the atmosphere by a cosmic burst of high energy gamma rays (GRB) colliding with nitrogen molecules in the presence of oxygen. Lightning also creates nitrogen dioxide, although in relatively small quantities. But if you increase the energy and the quantity of nitrogen and oxygen, “a huge burnt-orange cloud” would be formed.  

According to current estimates, that is exactly what happened in Beirut.

Apparently, an industrial fire caused the thermal decomposition of large quantities of ammonium nitrate, which energetically broke down to form massive quantities of nitrogen gas, oxygen and water.

2NH4NO3 → 2N2 + 4H2O + O2.

The resulting high temperature N2 and O2 instantly combined to form the toxic burnt orange cloud of nitrogen dioxide, as seen in the above photo.

The exact mechanism of NO2 formation likely differs among the progenitor sources (GRB, lightning, explosion), but the basics should be the same.

What happened to the poisonous cloud of NO2 after it formed? Unlike what would happen in the upper atmosphere during a GRB, near the surface there is enough moisture for the NO2 to quickly combine with water to form nitric acid.

3 NO2 + H2O → 2 HNO3 + NO

Nitric acid rain would not be pleasant, but would not be as bad as nitrogen dioxide.

So, imagine if you will, a cosmic event (a GRB) far more violent than any man-made explosion. Imagine the entire atmosphere turning into a cloud like that in the photo above. Arguably, that is what would happen after a devastating GRB from within our galaxy.

Actually, that toxic nitrogen dioxide cloud would be the least of the planet’s troubles. It would be a very bad day on Earth.

The good news is that such an event would be very unlikely.

But then again, this is 2020.

Pendelluft—The Beast Within

It was dark, the only light coming from the red glowing numerals of my digital alarm clock. I hadn’t set it to alarm—I needed to sleep as long as I could.

It was also quiet in my bedroom, quiet enough for me to hear my breathing as I lay still, trying to sleep. The breath sounds were rhythmic and calming, breathing in with a hiss, and out with a coarser and louder “huh,” endlessly repeated.

I had just been released from our local hospital after five days on oxygen, diagnosed with “respiratory failure” of unknown origin. The medical term for unknown origin is “idiopathic,” but that word added no clarity to what had happened.

What had happened has been described in a previous blog post, a post that correctly warned that if the illness that almost killed me was any indication, we should NOT expect COVID-19 to abate during the hot and humid months in the American South.

Whatever virus I picked up in Thailand in July, seemed to have a predilection for the hot and humid summer weather of Florida. In other words, it had made itself right at home in my lungs. The result was a puzzling but treacherous case of silent hypoxia, or as some have called it, happy hypoxia. In that regard, my respiratory failure was every bit as inexplicable and potentially deadly as COVID-19.

Thankfully, my viral infection had not yet reached the level of transmissibility of COVID-19. Otherwise, my wife of fifty years would certainly have been affected as she sat by my side for those long and frustrating days in the hospital.

But now, it was time for celebration. By sheer willpower and some tricks of the respiratory physiology trade, I had gotten myself discharged from the hospital. But that’s another story.

At home once again, my finger-tip pulse oximeter showed I was oxygenating reasonably well on air (in the low 90 percentile), but I was not back to normal (the high 90s). My lungs still had some healing to do before I could claim I was 100% normal.

As I now lay quietly as night enveloped me, entering almost a meditative state listening to my breathing, I noticed a strange sound. Alerted, I listened more intently. And what I heard scared the hell out of me.

There was something alien in my body. I couldn’t feel it, but I could hear it. When I breathed in, it breathed out. When I breathed out, it breathed in. It was clear as day, something was breathing in my chest, and it wasn’t me.

I had a monster in my chest.

At times like that, it is hard to be objective. But with years of training as a scientist, I forced myself to collect data and analyze the results before, well, FREAKING OUT!   

The first thing I noticed, was that the asynchrony between my breathing and the other’s breathing, was invariant. They were 180 degrees out of phase, and that never changed.

Professionally, I’ve dealt with probability my entire scientific career. So, if there were in fact some other living thing in my chest, the odds that it would never change its breathing rhythm seemed unlikely. Unless—it was waiting for my lungs to have a full “tidal” breath” before IT took a breath.

Of course! That is exactly what I would do if I was in some giant’s chest. I’d wait until their lungs were full before I’d steal air from them. After all, how else could I, as a little monster, breathe?

But wouldn’t X-rays at the hospital have shown its presence? Well, yes, and no. They didn’t do an MRI. If IT was soft bodied, and growing, it might not have been detected. And going an analytical step further, that could explain why my arterial oxygen saturation levels were not back to normal. IT was stealing oxygen from me.

My heart rate was increasing, which was the last thing I wanted it to do. The more blood I sent the thing, the faster IT would grow. I had to stay calm. But how?

I began thinking about physiology text books. That would put anybody to sleep. But that was also the magic moment. That was when I put a name on the creature in my chest.

I called it, Pendelluft.

Until that night, Pendelluft had been to me of little more than academic interest. I’d read about it, but I knew it is primarily found in patients with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD); which I do not have. I’ve also never been a smoker or asthmatic.

I knew of the diagrams which explain it, but I never thought that I would be able to hear it, in my body, and especially without a stethoscope.

An illustration of the mechanism of Pendelluft from a humorously named web site, Deranged Physiology.

After I explored the medical literature, I’m not sure anyone in the medical field thinks it possible for a patient to hear his own Pendelluft. But it must be true, since the monster never reared its ugly head, and my arterial oxygen level regained its expected normal value only after the “monster” faded away.

 According to a 1985 paper in the Journal of Applied Physiology, the experimental evidence and theoretical aspects of Pendelluft are attributable to varied pulmonary (lung) airway resistance and compliance (the opposite of stiffness), and were first described in a classic paper by Otis et al. in 1956.  

I was pleased when I read that one of my mentors, Dr. Arthur Otis, the one time Department Head of the Physiology Department at the University of Florida School of Medicine, had done the pioneering research on the subject.

However, I found no reference to breath sounds until I came across the 2012 article in the journal Pulmonary Medicine. That study used very complex instrumentation and statistical methodology to detect Pendelluft.

I have to admit that I smiled when I read that 2012 article. I was questioning how much money was spent on that very elaborate medical investigation. Arguably, it was fine work and contributed nicely to the field.

But, I wondered, did they try asking the patient, “Do you hear a monster in your chest?”

For what it’s worth, I did.

And it was scary as hell.

Warning Order

“Consider this a warning order.”

The voice on the other end was from the Pentagon. That was the last thing I’d expected to hear on Saturday morning, March 21st, 2020.

On October 1, 2018, I had happily retired after forty years of Federal service. I had remained engaged with the Naval Sea Systems Command and the Navy Experimental Diving Unit as their one and only Volunteer Scientist Emeritus, until I received that call.

Within 90 minutes, I had been reinstated with full security clearance and told to pack my bags.

The next day as I was flying on government orders in an almost empty plane to New Hampshire, I had no idea that the company I was sent to help would begin a ventilator design effort from scratch, that same day. I also couldn’t imagine that the resulting ventilator would receive FDA approval 41 days later. 

Wilcox Industries Hybrid Patriot 5510 Life Support System.

 The company, Wilcox Industries, in Newington, New Hampshire, has for twenty years built hybrid self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) for the military. In fact, twenty years ago, with full Navy support, I helped them design and test their first Scout (now Patriot), life-support system for Tier One operators. But when the COVID Task Force phoned me, Wilcox had no experience with medical devices, especially ventilators. But with the can-do attitude so typical of military support manufacturers, they were willing to learn. In fact, no one I met at Wilcox questioned that it could be done.

Jim Teetzel (center) and Gary Lemire showing me the latest Hybrid Patriot 5510 Life Support System.

 All it took was the drive and leadership of Jim W. Teetzel (center of the photo), a brilliant engineer, businessman and CEO who holds more patents than he can probably remember, young engineers who never considered failure being a possibility, a nimble supply system that provided needed parts within 24 hours, and the magic words which opened every door. Those words were, “COVID Task Force.”

Through the Wilcox network of friends and family, patient ventilation circuit parts almost magically appeared, as did the world’s best mechanical Test Lung.

Michigan Instruments Training Test Lung (TTL)

There was nothing I asked for that did not appear almost as soon as I requested it.

Most important for me was the opportunity to teach by showing, by taking pieces of patient tubing circuits and arranging them in a way that would work with a totally new ventilator concept, the Patriot SAVR (Synchronous Automatic Ventilating Resuscitator.)

The Mechanical Engineer, Nick Mercurio, who I call “The Magician,” is working his engineering magic.

Our tasking from the COVID Task Force was not to produce multiple copies of existing sophisticated ventilators that cost as much as a nice car, but to have all hands engaged in producing small, cheap ventilators built to exacting engineering and medical standards. The proof that Wilcox accomplished that goal was the hard won stamp of approval from the Federal Drug Administration (FDA.)

The Software Engineer, Jansen Habrial, or the “Wizard,” makes the SAVR do things I never could have imagined.

While we want Americans to have the finest medical care money can buy, to include BMW-priced ventilators if the need arises, the fact is that during a world pandemic there simply are not enough of those deluxe models to go around. In the most populous nations of the world where per capita income is low, the availability of hundreds of such ventilators are a luxury few if any outlying hospitals can afford. However, low-cost ventilators like the Patriot SAVR fill that need.

Colonel Dodge (ret) and I as I’m departing Wilcox Industries.

Wilcox is blessed with a retired Marine Corp Colonel, Kevin Dodge (on the left side of this photo), Jim Teetzel’s Chief Strategy Officer. Dodge not only has the experience of managing production and testing programs as complex as that for the V-22 Osprey, but has an understanding of the need for strategically placed world markets.

Together, Jim Teetzel, Kevin Dodge, the “wicked” smart Executive Director of International Programs and Lebanese-born Roula Assadi, and Jim’s senior engineers (Nic Goupil, Gary Lemire, Stan Carter) and their Maestro of Quality Assurance, Lorena Grol, have succeeded in turning a small but wealthy Arab nation into a manufacturing center for the Middle East and North African Region, as well as the huge Indo-Asian continent.

A photo of the first Patriot SAVR Q made overseas by the Barzan Industrial Group in Doha, Qatar. It is being held by John Bousquet, one of the young designers from Wilcox Industries.

Considering the tactical pedigree of this ventilator, and the company which built it, I foresee that eventually every U.S. military medic or independent duty corpsman will have one or more of the Patriot SAVR units available at their aid station, just in case any Patriots need saving.

Happy Hypoxia – A 2018 Warning

“Happy hypoxia,” or more properly, silent hypoxia, has been one of the most puzzling signs and symptoms of patients presenting to Emergency Rooms with COVID-19. The patient’s arterial oxygen saturation can be in the fifties instead of the normal values in the upper 90s, and yet the patient can be cheerful, fully coherent, and even chatty. Normally, with that low an oxygen concentration in the blood stream, a patient would be in severe respiratory distress.

I experienced silent hypoxia after a visit to Thailand in July of 2018, which makes me wonder: was there a coronavirus lurking in Southeast Asia in 2018 that later mutated to become the killer SARS CoV-2? Did I have SARS CoV-1.5? 

Summertime was everything you would expect in Thailand. It was warm and humid, but not uncomfortably so. I had twelve hours ahead of me in the Bangkok Airport waiting for my return flight to Taiwan, then the long leg across the Pacific to Los Angeles. Eventually, I would make my way back to my home in Panama City, Florida, which would also be hot and muggy. No surprises there. 

What was a surprise, was that a young lady wandering the airport asked if she could interview me for the Thai Ministry of Tourism. She had official looking IDs, and a load of interview questions. I wasn’t interested, and I was busy, I offered, already tired before the twelve hours of dead time even began.  

In truth, I wasn’t that busy, but felt it best not to mingle. I seemed to be the only person not speaking Thai, except for that young lady. Surprisingly,  she had no detectable accent and could pass for a Southern California blond.

After a couple of hours, she returned when I could no longer claim to be busy. She had a simple, youthful attractiveness and an unassuming manner. So, tiring of the boredom of waiting, I allowed her to sit beside me while she started running down her list of tourism related questions. 

She wanted to know why I came to Thailand. It was to give a talk at a medical and scientific conference on sports medicine. My subject was “Oxygen,” a fact that would soon become ironic. I discovered later that my travel, ostensibly paid for by the Thai Sports Authority, was bankrolled by Beijing. But I didn’t know that at the time. 

For 45 minutes the questions continued. They were business-like, the type of questions I would expect from a Tourist Bureau. But one thing caused me concern, her occasional hacky cough. She insisted it was nothing, and I was not alarmed. I thought no more about it as I finally boarded the plane for the first leg of my long journey home.

Eight hours after my arrival in Panama City, I felt ill as I lay in bed, trying to sleep after being exactly twelve hours time-shifted. I felt sicker by the minute. Jet lag doesn’t do that.

By morning, I had suffered chills and sweats, and my physician son insisted I be taken to the closest Emergency Room. As we neared the ER I felt I was going to vomit, and I leaned into a trash can that my wife brought for that purpose. 

The next thing I heard was her screaming at me.

I yelled back, completely confused and annoyed. “Why are you yelling at me?”

“I thought you’d died,” she said. “You sighed, threw your back into the seat, and your arms were stiff and shaking.”

Apparently I had passed out from a drop in blood pressure.  (I had not yet thought about hypoxemia.)

As I was being monitored in the ER, I felt OK. I conversed with my wife, and was half-joking and half-irritated at my unexpected welcome home event.

After awhile, I began to pay attention to the finger tip pulse-oximeter that was monitoring my arterial oxygen saturation. The reading was slipping lower than I had ever seen before, but neither the nursing staff nor the attending physician seemed the least bit concerned. My wife and I continued to chat. I was not in any discomfort, and ignored the monitors until I caught sight of the updated pulse-ox reading. It had plummeted down to a horrifically low 55%. 

I told my wife to alert the nurse. They finally started me on a nasal cannula with oxygen. (For those who know, that was an incredibly delayed reaction.) I also knew enough to realize I should be almost stuporous, yet I wasn’t. I was content, except for my circumstances.

Within a few minutes, an ambulance transported me to a real hospital. Being aware of my overseas travel, they assumed I had a pulmonary embolism, which if detected, would have required immediate surgery. But after a perfusion scan, nothing abnormal was revealed. 

After settling into a room, I had zero desire for any of the food they brought me. It was all tasteless, and remained that way for two days.

Initially they kept me on 3 liters of oxygen per minute by nasal cannula, which still wasn’t bringing my oxygen saturation above 84 percent. That was a problem.

At the urging of the CDC, the nursing staff came to my room fully gowned and face-shielded, and stuck that infamously long sampling swab up my nose. They tested me for the most recent viral illness in Southeast Asia at the time, the H7N9 Bird Flu virus of 2017. The results were negative.

In spite of my growing displeasure with being in the hospital, and not tolerating the taste, or lack thereof, of their food, I was happy and chatty with the nursing staff. But neither I, a respiratory physiologist, nor the medical staff could figure out what was wrong. My X-rays showed some consolidation in my lingula, a small lobe in the middle of my lungs, but that was not enough to cause hypoxia of the level I was experiencing. 

After a while, I began to get a few signs of pneumonia in my lower lung lobes, but not enough to cause any discomfort, or difficulty breathing. While physicians clobbered the growing infection with antibiotics and steroids, I remained happily hypoxic.

After five days in the hospital, and slowly watching my oxygen saturation rise, a respiratory therapist snuck behind me and turned off the oxygen. My saturation remained low, at 88%, but it didn’t drop further. 

That meant, I would remain on air until discharge. That encouraged me enough to call for a walking test, walking down the hospital corridor breathing nothing but air. Unfortunately, I failed that test, and was sent back to bed.

About that time, a pulmonologist came by and told me I had a good bit of atelectasis (collapsed alveoli or lung sacs) in my lower lobes. Finally, something I could fix. I knew what to do.

I wore out my incentive spirometer over the next couple of hours, and then called for another walking test. The Respiratory Therapist chided me…I would just fail again, she said. But I do love a challenge. With her by my side, I moved slowly down the hall, refusing to talk, and that time my oxygen saturation did not drop. 

Due to that walking test, I was discharged from the hospital with an oxygen saturation of 92% and returned home to fully recover. (That is in itself an interesting story which I’ll write about next.)

However, the point of this post is that as I read about COVID-19, I’m finding that physicians are puzzled about some of the same bizarre symptoms I experienced in 2018,  notably  a silent hypoxia. I was never “short of breath” as would be expected with an arterial saturation in the fifties. 

From my studies of respiratory physiology, I knew that what had happened to me in 2018 should not have happened, according to the text books. I did not have the SARS virus identified in 2017. But viruses mutate constantly. Could my symptoms have been the signs of a predecessor or cousin to COVID-19? Could it have been an unrecognized COVID-18?

When lungs are not filled with fluid from rampant pneumonia, the most likely way to become hypoxic breathing air is through something called ventilation-perfusion (V-Q) mismatch. A pulmonary embolus can cause massive V-Q mismatch, and can quickly kill if untreated.

However, a recent Science article suggested that COVID-19 might cause microemboli resulting in silent hypoxia. It seems reasonable that enough microemboli, if that’s what it was, could have caused my symptoms in the summer of 2018 without being detected on a pulmonary perfusion scan. 

And that worries me for the current pandemic. Summer heat and humidity might not kill this virus. It certainly didn’t kill the virus that I presumably caught from a pretty young girl with a “nothing” of a cough in late July of 2018. It may have been nothing for her, but it was sure something for me.

None of my friends at the medical conference got sick upon returning home. I was the only one spending 45 minutes less than a foot away from that coughing girl. I feel pretty confident where I got it. My only question is, did I pick up a version of coronavirus that was beginning to mutate towards the destructive potential of SARS CoV-2 which erupted just over a year later?

As for the statue at the beginning of this blog post? It is the Yaksha Guardian Giant at the Bangkok Suvarnabhumi airport. If you ask me, he failed completely at protecting me from a tiny little virus. The guardian was awfully big, but sometimes size does not matter.

Bubble Submarines Resurface After Fifty-Two Years

A December, 2019 article in the New York Times has the catchy headline, “Bubble Subs Arise, Opening Eyes to the Deep Sea.”

From my perspective, it’s always great when anything about the deep sea attracts the attention of major newspapers. In general, well researched and written publications on the subject are hard to find. A happy exception is biologist Bill Streever’s latest book, In Oceans Deep.

Click photo to go to the Amazon page.

Streever’s excellent book has much to say about free diving, Navy diving, and even one-atmosphere diving suits (wearable submarines, if you will.)

But back to the NYT. William Broad’s article on mini-submarines is both colorful and informative. I urge you to read it if you have even the slightest interest in the undersea world.

Click photo to link to the NYT article.

However, just as the title of this blog post is deliberately hyperbolic, tongue in cheek, the NYT article is a bit misleading. Just because the technology may be new to the New York Times, it doesn’t mean it’s truly new. Bubble Subs have not actually risen of late. They, and the concepts behind them, have been around for a long time.

To prove my point, this blog post republishes the most interesting parts of an article I penned in the Georgia Tech Engineer way back in 1967. It’s called The Depth Challenger. The article is a little technical, which is the norm for an engineering school magazine, but it was also written to appeal to a diverse student body.

Artist’s conception of a 56-in diameter sphere mounted on its 16-foot maneuvering sled.

The article begins with a short piece of descriptive prose.

A brittle star, its arms twitching, spreading across the firm, grey mud, stops as a tracking light sweeps over and beyond it. An instant later the light returns and fixes on the animal as the whirring bubble slides in close over­head. The sphere hovers briefly then moves off, circling, finally disappearing below a canyon rim. When minutes later the bubble settles to rest on the soft canyon floor, cameras clicking, the two men inside sit gazing, peering, with four miles of water above their heads. These men are new frontiersmen – the oceanographers.

One of the greatest problems preventing our full utilization of the ocean’s potential is the inability of re­ search devices to withstand the enormous pressures exerted by deep water. At four thousand feet, the sea exerts one ton of pressure on each square inch of surface. At thirty-five thousand feet, the pressure is more than seven and a half tons per square inch. To date, nothing has been developed with the ideal requirements of 1) withstanding deep sea pressure, 2) containing man for extended periods of time, and 3) enabling direct visual observation.  However, a solution to these problems may soon be met by glass submarines. H. A. Perry, research materials engineer at the Naval Ordnance Laboratory of Silver Springs, Maryland, is currently researching the feasibility of transparent submarine hulls. Perry states that glass provides a unique degree of buoyancy and safety in deep submergence hulls.

To test his original hypothesis, Perry and other NOL scientists set sail in 1964 aboard the Navy research vessel Gillis with a cargo of 95 hollow spheres provided by Corning Glass Works and the Pittsburgh Plate Glass Company. Once over the Puerto Rico trench, these spheres were lowered to depths of 300, 7000, 1400 and 2100 feet. Pentolite-charges were set a fixed distance away and detonated. If no leakage of the sphere occurred, the charges were moved closer until the glass finally failed. At this point, a “critical distance” was defined.  As depth increased, the compressive strength of the glass also increased. With metal hulls, the results are just the opposite.

(As a side note, a few years later I set sail on the same vessel, by then renamed the RV Gillis, for a research cruise to the Puerto Rico Trench.)

Apparently, the deeper a glass submarine dives, the safer are its occupants; that is, down to an optimum depth of about 21,000 feet where the compressive strength diminishes until buckling finally occurs at a theoretical depth of 55,000 feet. However, the deepest part of the ocean, the Challenger Deep, is a trench descending to only 35,888 feet, so the theoretical limit for glass spheres poses no problem. It will be noted, though, that the compressive strength of conventional spheres at relatively low pressures is in itself rather low. The chances of a mariner surviving an accidental collision on down to a depth of several hundred feet is nil. Obviously, there is a need for either foolhardy scientists or “pre-compressed hulls.”

The full article with illustrations can be read here.

Bubble-Sub-1

In my opinion, the epitome of bubble submarines has been the Johnson Sea Link, pictured here. This revolutionary bubble submarine started operations in 1971, with upgrades in 1972, just a few years after I got wind of it.