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.

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.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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!