If you’ve planned a deep dive, to say 100 meters or deeper, you may have wondered just how your rebreather scrubber will handle that depth. Since pressure is equalized across a carbon dioxide (CO2) absorbent canister within a rebreather, it won’t implode. But what about the chemical absorption reactions occurring within the scrubber?
The rebreather scrubber is a vital part of your underwater life support system, so that question is a pretty important one. And the answer is very hard to find.
I recently traveled to Ireland to act as an external examiner for a Ph.D. student’s Doctoral Dissertation defense in the Department of Mechanical, Biomedical, and Manufacturing Engineering of the Cork Institute of Technology. The very talented graduate student was Shona Cunningham, and her dissertation was titled, “Carbon Dioxide Absorption and Channeling in Closed Circuit Rebreather Scrubbers”. She’s an athlete, musician, and perhaps most importantly for you readers, an avid diver.
Her work is the first computational fluid dynamic representation of scrubber canister thermokinetics. A portion of her dissertation work has already been published. Apparently, it was partially inspired by some of my computer simulation descriptions posted on this blog, which can be found here, here, and here.
Dr. Cunningham’s analytical approach (using Ansys CFX) showed that ambient pressure (depth) could reduce the effectiveness of scrubber canisters. In support of that finding were the words from the Dive Gear Express website regarding the Diverite O2ptima using the ExtendAir scrubber cartridge.
“As pressure increases the total number of molecules, the relative concentration of CO2 molecules in the loop is reduced, slowing the chemical absorption process. Thus as depth increases, scrubber efficiency will decrease.”
The U.S. Navy has no experience with the Diverite O2ptima, but they have information on other rebreathers using granular absorbent. That experience shows that there is no reliable depth effect across all rebreathers and all absorbents.
For example, in one rebreather there was indeed a 17% decrease in endurance using large grain absorbent (Sofnolime 408) at 50°F in descending from 190 fsw to 300 fsw (58 to 92 msw) breathing air. However, there was no decrease in duration when using fine grain absorbent (Sofnolime 812) under the same conditions. (On an actual dive, air would never be used at 300 fsw, but air was used in this study for scientific reasons.)
In another rebreather using Sofnolime 812, for a change in depth from 99 fsw to 300 fsw (30.3 to 92 msw) there was a 29% increase in duration at 75°F, a 10% increase at 55°F, and a 15% decrease at 40°F. Although air diluent was used at 99 fsw, 88/12 heliox diluent was used at 300 fsw.
From another manufacturer, I obtained information on two of their rebreathers. At 4°C, 1.6 L/min CO2 injection rate (corresponding to a fairly heavy work rate), 40 L/min ventilation rate using air diluent, there was a 27% decrease in one rebreather in going from 15 to 40 msw (50 fsw to 132 fsw), and a 11% decrease in another of their rebreathers in dropping from 40 msw to 100 msw.
In another rebreather tested under the same conditions except for depth, the canister duration dropped 39% between 15 and 40 msw.
So, there is some support for a drop in duration with depth, but in other cases, there is either no effect or an increase in duration with deeper depths. Clearly, if the high number of inert gas molecules coming with a pressure increase makes it more difficult for CO2 to reach absorption sites, then that would be a simple and unavoidable fact of physics. But that cannot be the whole story. What is likely to be going on, a hypothesis, is being developed for a later posting.
Should the effect of depth on your particular rebreather matter to you? Logically it shouldn’t. Even on a deep dive, the majority of the dive time is spent shallow, decompressing.
However, consider the case where you conduct a deep dive with an anticipated short bottom time, but something bad happens on the bottom. You or your dive team becomes fouled, ensnared in lines. Or there is a partial cave collapse trapping you. The benefit of a rebreather over scuba is that it gives you time to sort out your problem. Gas consumption is not nearly as great a concern as with open-circuit breathing apparatus.
However, as the minutes tick by as you work deep to get yourself or a team member free, you might wonder, “How is my scrubber handling this depth?” In the middle of a crisis is no time to be making assumptions about the status of a major part of your life support system.
Ask your manufacturer how your canister performs at depth. You have a right to know, and that information just might prove useful someday.