I See Dead People – Sort Of

The exit to the Morrison Springs cave. (photo credit: ZoCrowes255)

The young man in a swimming suit was lying lifeless at the bottom of a fissure on the floor of Morrison Springs, a popular underwater cave in Walton County, Florida. If his eyes had been open, he would have been staring straight up at me. But mercifully, his eyes were shut, as in sleep.

My diving buddies from the Georgia Tech Aquajackets dive club and I were breathing air from scuba tanks at about 110 feet sea water. We were in a portion of the cave that received no indirect light from the cave opening. Without the cave lights in many of the diver’s hands there would have been total darkness.

Who knew that on my second so-called “open water” dive I would find myself deeper than 100 feet in a cave, using the dispersed light from my buddies’ dive lights to examine a very fresh looking corpse? He looked to be about our age, late teens, high school or college age. A rock outcropping hid his body from about mid-hip level down. But the top portion of a bathing suit, his lean stomach, chest, and boyish-looking face and head was plainly visible.

There must have been some current at the bottom of the crevice because his brown hair was waving gently, being the only sign of motion from the deathly pale white boy with closed eyes, waiting patiently to be recovered to the surface.

I and the other divers stretched our arms and shoulders as far into the crevice as we dared, reaching towards the young man, hoping we could grab onto some part of his body. But it was futile – he was at least a foot out of our reach. Finally, checking our dive watches, we saw it was time to swim toward the cave entrance and start our ascent.

Since there was no scuba gear on him he must have been a free-diver, a breath-hold diver who entered the cave then passed out and sank to the deepest, most inaccessible portion of the cave. As I and the other divers rose along the limestone borders of the cave I watched the darkness surround the young man’s cold body once again. I felt lonely, almost as if I could feel his spirit’s loneliness.

As I reached the surface I turned to the closest diver, removed my regulator from my mouth, and panted, “How are we going to recover that body?”

His response stunned me.

“What body? That was no body – that was a Navy 6-cell flashlight!

How could it be? I would have signed a sworn affidavit to the police describing everything I had seen, in detail, just as I’ve reported it to you many years later. The visual details, the textures, the emotions will not leave me.

But they were not real.

As for why that happened, the only thing I can assume is that for a nineteen-year old novice diver, descending in the dark to 110 feet, in a cave, might be just a bit more than the diver’s mind is prepared for. The nitrogen in air is narcotic if found in high enough concentration, so I was undoubtedly suffering from nitrogen narcosis. Plus, at the time the entrance to the Spring was macabre, with a large photo of a diver with his back filleted open by a boat propeller, and signs prominently displaying warnings of the large number of fatalities in the cave from poorly trained and equipped divers exceeding their limits.

My mind was prepared to witness tragedy, and the normally mild nitrogen narcosis of 110 feet may have  been just the trigger needed for a vivid hallucination.

I have had no hallucinations since then, from diving or anything else, except for one medical procedure reported on in this blog. But what remains remarkable to me was my absolute conviction that what I had seen in that cave was real. Consequently, I now know very well  that what people testify as being real, whether they are diving or not, may in fact be only imagined.

How Much is Too Much? (Carbon Dioxide – The Diver’s Nemesis)

The amount of carbon dioxide (CO2) that can be safely inhaled by rebreather divers is a continuing point of conjecture, and vigorous argument. Unfortunately, the U.S. Navy  Experimental Diving Unit has confused that issue, until recently.

A non-diver might wonder why a diver should inhale any CO2. After all, the air we breathe contains only a small fraction of CO2 (0.039%). A rebreather is best known for emitting no bubbles, or at most very few bubbles depending on the type of rebreather. It does that by recirculating the diver’s breath, adding oxygen to make up for oxygen consumed by the diver, and absorbing the carbon dioxide produced by the diver. The CO2 scrubber canister is vital to keeping the diver alive. As pointed out in the first post in this series, carbon dioxide is toxic; it can kill.

A CO2 scrubber  keeps the recirculating CO2 levels low by chemically absorbing exhaled CO2. However, the scrubber has a finite lifetime – it can only absorb so much CO2. Once its capacity has been exceeded, CO passing through the canister accumulates exponentially as the diver continues to produce CO2 from his respiration.

The question rebreather divers want answered is, “How much of that bypassed CO2 can I tolerate?” As we’ve discussed in previous posts, 30% CO2 can incapacitate you within a few breaths. I can personally verify that if you’re exercising you may not notice the effect 7% CO2 has on you, until you try to do something requiring coordination. I’d equate it to the effect of drinking too many beers. There is little controversy about CO2 levels of 5-7% being bad for a diver.

For levels below 5-7% CO2, the U.S. Navy has not been real clear. For instance, 2% CO2 is the maximum CO2 allowed in diving helmets. If CO2 were to climb higher the diver would most likely feel a need to ventilate the helmet by briefly turning up the fresh gas supply to clear CO2.

Since at least 1981, NEDU has defined the scrubber canister breakthrough point in rebreathers as 0.5% CO2. That means that at some point, which varies with CO2 injection rate, ventilation rate, water temperature, and grain size of CO2 absorbent, CO2 begins leaking past the canister, not being fully absorbed during its passage through the canister. Once that leakage starts, the amount of CO2 entering the diver’s inspired breath rises at an ever increasing rate unless work rate or other variables change. By the time the CO2 leaving the canister has reached 0.5%, the canister has unequivocally “broken through”.

I pointed out in my last post that even 0% inspired CO2 may be too much for some divers when they are facing resistance to breathing. And all rebreathers are more difficult to breathe than other types of underwater breathing apparatus because the diver has to force his breath through the rig’s scrubber canister and associated hoses. The deeper the dive the denser the breathing gas and the worse breathing resistance becomes.

In free-flow diving helmets like the old MK 5, and the short-lived MK 12, the diver did not breathe through hoses and scrubber canisters. But those helmets had a high dead space and to keep helmet CO2 at tolerable levels a fresh gas flow of 6 actual cubic feet per minute (acfm; 170 liters per minute) was required. The U.S. Navy allowed up to 2% CO2 in the helmet because 1) the helmets did not have a high work of breathing and 2) due to simple physics the helmet CO2 couldn’t be kept very low.

For rebreathers, none of the above apply. A high breathing resistance is inevitable, at least compared to free-flow helmets, and once CO2 starts rising there is nothing you can do to decrease it again, short of stopping work.

In 2000, NEDU’s M. Knafelc published a literature review espousing that the same limit for inspired CO2 which applies in helmets could be used in rebreathers. Nevertheless, in 2010 NEDU’s D. Warkander and B. Shykoff clearly demonstrated that in the face of rising inspired CO2 concentrations work performance is reduced, and blood levels of CO2 rise, in some cases to dangerous levels. More recent work by the Warkander and Shykoff duo have extended those studies into submersion, however those reports are not yet publicly available.

As a result of both physiological theory and confirmatory data in young, physically-fit experimental divers, NEDU has not relaxed the existing definitions of scrubber canister breakthrough, 0.5% PCO2. Furthermore NEDU will adhere to the current practice of using statistical prediction methods to define published canister durations, methods which are designed to keep the odds of a diver’s rebreather canister “breaking through” to no more than 2.5%, comparable to the odds of decompression sickness following Navy multi-level dive tables. Details of this procedure will be explained in later postings.


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.”


Six-Degrees of Freedom

Photo credit Paul Burger, Houston

I’ve had an epiphany of sorts.

I was flying with friends as night was falling. We were over a mile up, the air was clear and still, not a bump to be found. City lights and major roads could be seen from over 45 miles away. We seemed to be suspended in space, with only the movement of lights sliding below our wings betraying the fact that we were traveling at 145 knots over the ground.

The fellow sitting in the seat to my right seemed interested in taking the controls, something he had never done before. I first let him handle the yoke. With the autopilot holding track so we wouldn’t get too far off course I let him see how the elevator worked to raise and lower the nose, controlling pitch. Then as I turned the autopilot off completely, I had him experiment with the rudder pedals to see how that affected the aircraft. They made the plane yaw to the left and right. Next I showed him how the ailerons on the wings work with the rudder on the tail to smooth out turns by applying roll simultaneously with yaw. That created a coordinated turn which is the most efficient and comfortable way to change direction in the air.

He was getting a mini-lesson in flying, and doing quite well for a novice.

Then I told him to point the nose of our bird towards a light on the horizon that would keep us headed in the right direction, towards our home base some 90 nm away.

He had the plane swaying slightly from side to side, but I did not interfere or correct him. Now that I think about it, he may have been doing it deliberately as he learned how the ailerons and rudders work in unison. And then he said something interesting: “It’s six-degrees of freedom.”

Granted, my friend is a mechanical engineer, and in his student days he had done a project with wind tunnels and model airplanes. That was where he gained both academic and practical experience about the six-degrees of freedom in aviation.

Image credit: Horia Ionescu, Wikipedia Commons

The six degrees involve three degrees of translation, and three of rotation. In the following illustrations, aside from the three rotational axes commonly applied to aircraft, roll, pitch and yaw, the other three axes are also shown. In a ship, motion in those translational axes are called heave, sway, and surge. In an aircraft they have less colorful terms; motion fore and aft, left and right (port and starboard), and up and down. The figure to the right shows all six degrees of freedom irrespective of the craft or method of motion.

Illustration by S. W. Halpern


For me, the  epiphany was the realization that my favorite things on earth (or slightly above it) involve six-degrees of freedom. Physically, there can be no greater freedom, and that freedom is found in flying and diving. No wonder I love them.

Birds live in that six-degree of freedom world, and perhaps that’s why we envy them. While we may not envy fish, per se, perhaps it is the six-degrees of freedom that lures so many of us to diving underwater. I well remember the first time I glided over a vertical precipice in crystal-clear water and realized with supreme pleasure that the laws of physics no longer compelled me to tumble over that precipice. Even now, quite a few years later, I still enjoy diving in the Florida Panhandle Springs, and finning directly over a rock face that drops vertically towards a sand bottom some 25 or so feet below. I’ll float over it, looking down, then bend at the waist and glide effortlessly to the bottom.

This is the stuff of flying dreams, of which I am also enamored.

A soul floating in space prior to incarnation, an embryo floating in utero prior to implantation; these are ways we might have once had the same freedom of motion. But soon after becoming a fetus we lose that freedom. There is no where else that freedom of motion can be experienced in a sustained manner than by  flying and diving.

Photo credit: Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Jayme Pastoric


The following video is the best example I’ve found to demonstrate the true meaning of six degrees of freedom. Go to full screen, high def, volume up, and enjoy! (Disclaimer: I have no connection to the featured company or equipment used in the making of this video.)

Children of the Middle Waters

Children of the Middle Waters (working title) is a science fiction/thriller that has been completed and is being submitted today for consideration by Tom Doherty Associates, New York. My friend and mentor, the writer Max McCoy, has provided literary criticism and encouragement for the manuscript. Max, who works primarily in the Western genre, wrote a diving-related thriller called The Moon Pool, which happens to involve in its closing chapter the Navy Experimental Diving Unit, and someone a lot like me.

Below is a blurb briefly describing Children of the Middle Waters.

In the deep-sea canyons and trenches of the Earth lie thousands of alien spacecraft and millions of their inhabitants who have to leave soon or risk being stranded forever, or being destroyed. Due to their physiology they have been unable to directly contact humans, but they are adroit at mental contact and remote viewing, when it suits them.

They need the help of two humans to assure their safe escape, an experienced Navy scientist and a beguiling graduate student.  But introductions through mental means are slow and suspect, as you might imagine.

The U.S. government is well aware of this deep sea civilization, and is desirous of the weapons the visitors possess, which puts the two unsuspecting scientists in the middle of a conflict between powerful
military forces and powerful intergalactic forces. Things could get messy.

Even worse, jealous friends turn on the unlikely duo and put their lives at risk.

Children combines two separate Native American beliefs and legends with current events. It is a complex thriller with science fact and science fiction mixed in with military action and government intrigue. Also revealed are romantic possibilities that far exceed the capabilities of the mundane, everyday world.

Early American Indian beliefs create an ending for this story that no one could anticipate. It is an ending that causes the protagonist to realize everything he has held dear is wrong, in one way or another. At the same time he discovers a reality that is the greatest blessing that man can receive.


Diving with Hydrogen – It’s a Gas

When most people think of hydrogen, they think of the fuel that stars burn in their nuclear fires, the hydrogen bomb, or the Hindenburg disaster. Hydrogen is known for its combustibility and explosiveness. Not many people would think of diving underwater with it.

Technical divers breathe various gas blends, using mixtures of nitrogen, oxygen and even helium. But leave it to the ever inventive Swedes, makers of some of the best diving equipment in the world, to use hydrogen as an experimental diving gas as early as the 1940s.

Hydrogen will not burn under two conditions; if there is too little hydrogen, or too much hydrogen and not enough oxygen. A gas mixture (air or oxygen) with less than 4% hydrogen will not burn, and with more than 94% hydrogen in oxygen (or 75% hydrogen in air), the gas mixture will also not burn. So 100% hydrogen will not burn, unless it leaks out of its container and gets diluted in air. And then if there is an ignition source, woosh, a la Hindenburg.


A diver with supposed nitrogen narcosis. Photo credit, Daniel Kwok on flickr.

So why would anyone consider breathing hydrogen? When diving deeper than a few meters, you need a so-called diluent gas to mix with oxygen. Air is a mixture of nitrogen and oxygen, and when compressed, that nitrogen becomes narcotic, leading to nitrogen narcosis, or “rapture of the deep”. When air is compressed it also becomes dense, making it more difficult to breathe than air is at the surface.

Helium, often used by deep diving Navy and technical divers, is less dense than nitrogen and therefore is easier to breathe at depth. Furthermore, it is not narcotic, so no more “rapture of the deep”.

But for seriously deep diving, greater than about 450 msw (~1500 fsw), even a mixture of helium and oxygen becomes dense enough to impede breathing. One solution is to use an even lighter gas, hydrogen.

Experimental hydrogen-helium-oxygen gas mixtures have been used by COMEX in France to slightly exceed, at 2290 fsw (701 msw), the U.S. deep diving record (2250 fsw, 686 msw) set using a mixture of helium, nitrogen and oxygen.

Hydrogen has one annoying property — it is narcotic. It is far less narcotic than hyperbaric nitrogen, and some narcosis seems to be necessary to counteract the deleterious effects of the High Pressure Nervous Syndrome (HPNS). However, unlike nitrogen narcosis, which is akin to mild alcohol intoxication, hydrogen narcosis is reported to be psychotropic, inducing at great depth altered realities akin to those produced by LSD.

I once was conducting medical research on a 450 msw dive at the German GUSI deep diving chamber, and one of the divers was a French diver who had been a subject on the French hydrogen dives. He reported, without going into detail, that he did not like the effects of hydrogen at all. It was strange, he said. On the other hand, the same diver did very well on the helium-nitrogen-oxygen gas mixture used at GUSI and Duke University.

That some exotic gases on deep experimental dives would be considered strange is an understatement. Deep hydrogen has been reported to produce out of body experiences, something that a person as well grounded as a professional diver would consider frighteningly bizarre.

Swedish diver Arne Zetterström

The Swedes, and Arne Zetterström in particular, were interested in hydrogen diving during World War II for a simple reason; they wanted to dive deep, without the effects of nitrogen narcosis, but did not have access to helium. Most helium comes from gas wells in the United States and Russia. So, looking for another diluent gas other than helium, Zetterström briefly considered two constituents of intestinal gas (flatus), namely methane and hydrogen. Arguably, it was easy for the Swedes to produce plenty of methane and hydrogen. Just how they planned to do that is something I never asked.

Eventually, hydrogen was chosen for the Swedish dives simply because hydrogen was less dense than methane.

In principle, hydrogen could be used by a deep technical diver, but only at depths deeper than 132 fsw (5 atmospheres), a depth which would turn the noncombustible 4% oxygen in hydrogen gas mix into a so-called normoxic gas mixture, meaning it would have about as many oxygen molecules per breath as air at the surface. If the diver attempted to come shallower on that same gas mixture, he would lose consciousness due to hypoxia.

Since helium is not a combustible gas it does not have gas mixture restrictions. As long as  a helium-oxygen gas mixture contains the right amount of oxygen (not too much and not too little), then it will be safe. Both nitrogen and helium are therefore far preferred over either of the flammable gases methane and hydrogen  for use in breathing gas mixtures for diving.

Nevertheless, as divers continue to explore ways of diving deeper, it is certainly possible that hydrogen and other exotic gases may eventually play a role in deep life-support. Who knows, perhaps a perfect gas mixture will involve a blend of hydrogen and methane along with oxygen. If so, perhaps we could call it, oh I don’t know, maybe … Flatogen!






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.



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).