If you’re diving a rebreather (closed-circuit breathing apparatus to be exact), then you know the scrubber removes carbon dioxide from your recirculated breath. Without the scrubber working, you’d go unconscious from carbon dioxide intoxication within a very few minutes of starting the dive.
But do you really know what’s going on inside that scrubber canister?
A stochastic computer simulation developed by the author gives as realistic a glimpse inside as we can get.
Carbon dioxide scrubber canisters usually contain a chemical mixture called sodalime that chemically reacts with carbon dioxide in a diver’s expired breath. That material may be in granular form, or in a preformed roll. Sodalime is a mixture of calcium hydroxide and sodium hydroxide, which when it reacts by absorbing carbon dioxide is converted into calcium carbonate (CaCO3, calcite), a major constituent of limestone.
The overall chemical reaction can be simplified to:
CO2 + Ca(OH)2 → CaCO3 + H2O + heat
In the following sequence of images we see a rectangular prism shaped scrubber canister arranged axially such that the diver’s expired breath enters the section from the left, passing completely through the canister section before exiting to the right. A portion of the canister was cut away digitally after the simulation was run to allow visualization of temperatures within the canister interior.
Initially, the canister is at room temperature, and then is immersed in cold water as the diver begins his dive. Temperature is color coded: the coldest temperature is black, and increasing warmth is portrayed in an intuitive fashion from purple to red to yellow, and finally white, being the highest temperature.
In the first image, CO2 has just started reacting with the sodalime at the entrance to the canister section, with a slight heating resulting. Thermal conduction is cooling the exterior surface of the canister, but most of the inside still remains at room temperature.
In the second image, the reaction front has clearly formed, and the hottest portion of the canister has begun moving downstream. Convection carries heat rapidly downstream to heat the diver’s inspired breath, and is seen to offset canister cooling due to conduction from the surrounding cold water.
In the image to the left, the heating front is fully developed, and residual heat has spread almost completely throughout the downstream portion of the canister.
Finally (lower left figure), the thermal heating in the reaction front, indicative of CO2 absorption effectiveness, is fading out, and the cooling of the canister from the surrounding cold water is beginning to win the tug of war between heat generation and conductive cooling.
At that point in time, the canister is spent, and essentially all of the exhaled CO2 is passing right through the canister without being absorbed. If the diver had not ended his dive before his canister reached this point, he would be at great risk of passing out due to CO2 accumulation.
The last figure (lower right) shows temperature readings at various locations, and at various times (reps) throughout the simulation run. The orange and brown traces marked “temp” are measured temperatures from locations near the entrance to the canister. They rise abruptly as the absorption reactions start, and fall quickly as the reaction front moves past them, downstream.
The curves that remain elevated longer represent the average exhaled gas temperature, and the average temperature within the absorbent bed. After reaching a peak, the average bed temperature steadily drops as cold gas from the inlet (exhaled) gas chills the portion of the bed behind the reaction front. Exhaled gas temperature, on the other hand, climbs more slowly, but remains more stable until the bed becomes depleted of absorbent activity.
The monitoring of absorbent canister temperature changes is what makes the rebreather scrubber canister monitors used in the Inspiration and Sentinel rebreathers possible. The Sentinel technology is licensed from the U.S. Navy Experimental Diving Unit.
The following is a high definition video of the computer simulation of heat generation and loss in a short cylindrical canister. For best effect go to full screen and 1080p mode.
Further details about the computer simulation involved in the production of these images and video can be found in the paper “Computer Modeling of the Kinetics of CO2 Absorption in Rebreather Scrubber Canisters”, in MTS/IEEE OCEANS 2001 Conference Proceedings, published by the Marine Technology Society; Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers; Oceanic Engineering Society (U.S.); IEEE Xplore (Online service).