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High Pressure Problems on Über-Deep Dives: Dealing with HPNS

If you’re diving beyond 150 m/490 ft you’re likely to experience the effects of High Pressure Nervous Syndrome (HPNS). Here InDepth’s science geek Reilly Fogarty discusses the physiology of deep helium diving, explains the mechanisms believed to be behind HPNS, and explores its real world implications with über-deep cave explorers Dr. Richard “Harry” Harris and Nuno Gomes. Included is a list of sub-250 m tech diving fatalities.

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By Reilly Fogarty
Header image: Original Photo by Sean Romanowski, effects by the team at GUE HQ

There aren’t many technical divers exploring deeper than 153 m/500 ft on a regular basis—the logistical and physiological demands alone make sure of that. The small group of divers who do reach those depths without saturation chambers or other professional accoutrements face a daunting host of new concerns. At these depths, decompression models aren’t as well validated, and dives require precise gas planning and acknowledgement of extreme environmental exposures. 

As if decompression illness (DCI) and oxygen toxicity risks weren’t enough, divers must prepare to deal with the possibility that they may get to depth and experience vertigo, confusion, seizures, and a varied list of other neurological maladies—sometimes without warning. These symptoms are the result of high-pressure nervous syndrome (sometimes called high-pressure neurological syndrome) or HPNS. Symptoms of HPNS are highly variable but primarily affect those who descend rapidly to 153 m/500 ft or deeper. HPNS may have played a role in the death of legendary cave explorer Sheck Exley, and it may have caused numerous close-calls in deep cave and wreck explorations. But, the extreme depth required to experience onset has relegated research and education on HPNS to a niche corner of the diving community—one with significant interplay with the commercial saturation diving world and the most extreme sport communities. 

The Physiology of Deep Helium Diving

In 1961, G.L. Zal’tsman, who headed the Laboratory of Hyperbaric Physiology, St. Petersburg, Russia, first identified what would eventually become known as high-pressure nervous syndrome. The political climate of the period limited access to his work in the west, so credit for the discovery is often shared with Peter Bennett, D.Sc, who published a paper on the subject in 1965. While politics and international tensions separated them, both researchers described what they called “helium tremors” that occurred during experiments with military subjects. Using gases with the high helium content required to manage narcosis at depth, participants in these studies were observed experiencing uncontrollable muscle tremors upon compression in a chamber. 

At the time, it was unknown if this was a function of the helium in their breathing gas or an effect of depth. The term “high-pressure nervous syndrome” originated just a few years after Zal’tsman’s study, when R.W. Brauer identified changes in the conscious states and electroencephalography data from subjects in a chamber dive to nearly 368 m/1,200 ft. In the decades since, several studies further illuminated what we now know as HPNS, primarily as a result of research into deep sea exploration from the 1970s to early 1990s. As it stands now, HPNS is primarily identified by a decreased mental status, dizziness, visual disturbances, nausea, drowsiness, muscle tremors, and seizures in divers rapidly reaching depths of 153 m/500 ft or more, or exploring the extremes of depth closer to 306 m/1,000 ft at any rate of compression while breathing a high helium content gas. 

The prevailing theory is that a combination of speed of compression during descent, and the absolute pressure at depth, cause these symptoms. Symptoms are rare during dives above 153 m/500 ft, but dives that exceed that depth, or that reach depth quickly, increase the likelihood of symptom evolution. Symptoms do not appear to correlate to each other, and individual susceptibility is highly variable, which makes predicting onset difficult. Some researchers also theorize that there are two separate conditions caused individually by compression (the symptoms of which diminish at depth) and total pressure (the symptoms of which persist throughout the bottom portion of a dive). This two-part explanation for HPNS symptoms provides some interesting avenues for future research and could help solidify some of the theorized mechanisms underlying the condition, but it has yet to be expanded upon in a significant way. 

The mechanism behind HPNS has yet to be proven, but most researchers choose to work upon the basis of a few reasonable theories. The first relies on the compression of the cell membranes in the central nervous system. In this model, the rapid compression of the lipid components of these membranes may alter the function of the inter-lipid structures that facilitate signal transmission within the central nervous system. This change in structure could facilitate hyperexcitability of some nervous system pathways and cause the types of tremors and seizures associated with serious HPNS cases. This membrane compression could also alter the signaling pathways required for motor function and cognition, resulting in  confusion and assorted neurological symptoms that sometimes occur in divers with HPNS. 

Another model focuses on the role of neurotransmitters themselves, rather than their signaling receptors. The various iterations of this model examine the effects of pressure and varying helium/oxygen exposures on the production or reception of these transmitters. In some ways, this method resembles our understanding of oxygen toxicity mechanisms, which could lead to some interesting interplay between future research projects and the balancing of oxygen and helium exposures at extreme depth. Some of the more promising studies in this area show evidence of NMDA receptor antagonists reducing convulsions in animal models, and describe the effectiveness of increased dopamine release in preventing increased motor activity under extreme pressure in rat models

A third model focuses on the effect of helium on HPNS risk. This model functions on a yet-unidentified mechanism, but explores the potential distortion of lipid membranes by helium at depth. The data from these studies suggests that high pressure helium—not high hydrostatic pressure—may alter the tertiary structure of protein-lipid interactions and change signaling pathways within the nervous system. Numerous other avenues for research exist in this niche, including  projects working on a great number of neurotransmitter related conditions and pre-treatment protocols for HPNS, oxygen toxicity, and possibly related normobaric diseases. Any of these models could prove accurate, but the interplay between the many neurotransmitters makes it most likely that a combination of these models will best illustrate what occurs in-situ. 

Real-World Experiences

Experienced firsthand, HPNS is far less academic, but equal parts confounding and terrifying. The variable onset and sometimes ambiguous symptom presentation make it difficult to discern from other conditions, and mild symptoms can be easily written off. By the same token, however, a serious bout of tremors or confusion as a result of a rapid descent to deep water can leave a diver terrified and unable to act. Dr. Richard “Harry” Harris, SC OAM, is a physician and technical diver with years of exploration in deep caves and shipwrecks. His experiences with HPNS mirror that of many. Most often, he’s observed symptoms like trembling hands or loss of coordination that could be attributed to either HPNS or the adrenaline rush of a fast hot-drop from a boat in heavy seas. 

Richard “Harry” Harris in the main shaft of Pierce Resurgence, New Zealand. Photo by Simon Mitchell.

On one recent dive to 150 m/490 ft, Harris described becoming temporarily incapacitated on the bottom due to minor tremors, finding himself unable to clip his strobe to the shot line. The symptoms resemble common descriptions of mild HPNS symptoms, but the relatively shallow (in terms of HPNS, at least) depth still gives him pause when he tries to discern the specific cause of the symptoms. Dives past 200 m/656 ft have provided similar conundrums, but Harris has experienced tremors at extreme depths with enough regularity to notice that he is somewhat more susceptible than his regular dive buddy Craig Challen. “This [variation in symptom onset and presentation] has really made me question again the role of the mental state, approach, and perhaps even intentional mindfulness on these symptoms,” explains Harris. 

Harris wearing dual Megalodon rebreathers. Photo by Simon Mitchell.

By focusing on gas choices that strike a balance between gas density and the high concentrations of helium that can cause HPNS symptoms, and by descending relatively slowly, Harris has managed to alleviate symptoms on much deeper dives. A recent 245 m/799 ft dive with an intentionally slowed descent gave him none of the same complaints as his rapid descents to shallower water and felt “like a [much shallower] 150 m/490 ft dive.”

Wet Mules in their element. Photo by Simon Mitchell.

It’s worth noting at this point that Harris and Challen are extraordinarily capable and experienced divers, and HPNS is a condition that shouldn’t be taken lightly. Their approach—a combination of conservatism and safety—is likely key to their management of HPNS on extremely deep dives. Other divers, some equally experienced, have not been as fortunate in the past. 

Sheck Exley reported a particularly bad case during a dive to 210 m/689 ft, with vision blurred to the extent that he was “looking through small circles with black dots, and started convulsing.” Despite these symptoms, he continued his dive, and proceeded to a maximum depth of 263 m/863 ft. It’s thought that Exley’s eventual death during an attempt to descend past 305 m/1,000 feet in the Mexican Zacatón cave system could have been caused in part by HPNS symptoms exacerbated by narcosis. 

Sheck Exley and Nuno Gomes at Boesmansgat in 1993. Photo by Andrew Penny and Charles Maxwell.

Nuno Gomes, a technical diver who holds several Guinness World Records for depth in open water and in caves, has also become intimately acquainted with HPNS, experiencing the following during a world record dive: 

Nuno Gomes decompressing after his 271 m/889 ft record dive in the Red Sea. Photo by Krzysztof Starnawski.

“As I descended past 250 m/816 ft, the HPNS set in. At first, relatively mild, then fairly strong. And later on, the symptoms became so extreme that my whole body shook uncontrollably. One other problem was lack of coordination of movement. I felt severely narcosed on my bottom trimix of 3.15/85. It had only a calculated END of 40 m/131 ft. From my experience, a more realistic narcosis level was 78 m/256 ft as calculated using the Total Narcotic Depth (TND). When I reached the tag marked 315 m/1,033 ft at an actual depth of between 322 m/1,056 ft and 323 m/1061 ft, I realized that this was as far as I was able to go. I was not sure that I would be able to return if I went any deeper. At that stage, I was not sure that I would be able to swim up from that depth.”

Gomes’s regular attempts to reach extreme depth made him uniquely prepared to identify symptoms of HPNS as they appeared, but even with his breadth of experience, the effects of the condition could have become lethal if allowed to continue. 

Nuno Gomes during decompression following his 271 m/889 ft record dive. Photo by Krzysztof Starnauski.

Statistically, there just aren’t enough documented cases of HPNS to make for a meaningful analysis, but these incidents can provide a basis for education. The symptom severity and onset variability is enormous, but there are some trends that can be pulled from the stories of Harris, Exley, and Gomes. How to integrate those in your dive plan without meaningful data to back them up, however, falls to personal choice. 

Diver Fatalities Beyond 250 meters/816 Feet. Note that numerous divers have died at shallower depths seeking to break records. Complied by Nuno Gomes

Planning for the Future

There are more than a few good reasons not to end this piece with a “how-to” on diving past 153 m/500 ft. With regard to HPNS specifically, the reality is that we just don’t know enough about the mechanisms that cause the symptoms divers experience. What we have is an understanding that high helium content and rapid descents likely contribute to HPNS risk, some people are more susceptible than others, and the symptom presentation is not uniform or predictable. Beyond these fundamental constants, we must piece together what we know from the limited research we do have and the experiences of others. 

The data on compression speed appears to be pretty clear: HPNS symptoms may not be entirely preventable, but the risks can be somewhat ameliorated by slowing our descent speeds. There also appears to be an opposing effect between helium and nitrogen content in our breathing gas. This is likely due to changes in the structures of the membranes surrounding our central nervous system caused by helium and other inert gases, requiring divers to balance potential narcotic effects and HPNS risk in gas planning. 



Using nitrogen as a protective gas seems counterintuitive, but in some extremely deep dives, adding just 5% nitrogen to a heliox mixture appeared to dramatically reduce HPNS symptoms in divers. However, the extent of practical efficacy remains to be seen. Promising studies researched using hydrogen to minimize HPNS risk, but this avenue of research is prohibitively expensive and logistically challenging due to the inherent fire risk. 

The onset of HPNS symptoms also appears to be relatively gradual, although it’s important to recognize that not all data supports this and rapid onset can occur. With slow descent rates and intelligent gas choices, it seems unlikely that divers would experience HPNS severe enough to incapacitate them before they had a chance to turn their dive, but that is not to say that it cannot happen or should be ignored as a real concern. Symptoms of HPNS still haven’t been found to correlate with each other, and not only can new symptoms arise quickly, but also the nature of the ailments means that a diver may not be able to identify symptoms until it is too late to react. 

The past decade has failed to provide much in significant data on HPNS as it pertains to recreational divers, certainly almost nothing in comparison to the deep-diving heyday that brought about the COMEX tables and Atlantis projects. Going forward, it seems likely that HPNS will become a greater concern. Technical divers will continue to explore the limits of depth with the widespread adoption of rebreathers, persisting in their search for deeper caves and unexplored wrecks. Hopefully, this ongoing—perhaps even increasing—activity will spur more research into HPNS and the potential interplay between the mechanisms of narcosis and oxygen toxicity. Until then, we’ll have to continue to glean what we can from the data we have and the experiences of the more ambitious among us. 

References:

  1. Naquet, R., Lemaire, C., J.-C. Rostain, & Angel, A. (1984). High Pressure Nervous Syndrome: Psychometric and Clinico- Electrophysiological Correlations [and Discussion]. Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society of London. Series B, Biological Sciences, 304(1118), 95-102. Retrieved May 21, 2021, from http://www.jstor.org/stable/2396156 
  2. Talpalar, Adolfo. (2007). High pressure neurological syndrome. Revista de neurologia. 45. 631-636.
  3. Understanding Oxygen Toxicity: Part 1 – Looking Back
  4. Pearce PC, Halsey MJ, MacLean CJ, Ward EM, Webster MT, Luff NP, Pearson J, Charlett A, Meldrum BS. The effects of the competitive NMDA receptor antagonist CPP on the high pressure neurological syndrome in a primate model. Neuropharmacology. 1991 Jul;30(7):787-96. doi: 10.1016/0028-3908(91)90187-g. PMID: 1833661.
  5. Kriem B, Abraini JH, Rostain JC. Role of 5-HT1b receptor in the pressure-induced behavioral and neurochemical disorders in rats. Pharmacol Biochem Behav. 1996 Feb;53(2):257-64. doi: 10.1016/0091-3057(95)00209-x. PMID: 8808129.
  6. Bliznyuk, A., Grossman, Y. & Moskovitz, Y. The effect of high pressure on the NMDA receptor: molecular dynamics simulations. Sci Rep 9, 10814 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-019-47102-x
  7. High Pressure Neurological Syndrome, DIVER (2012) by Dr. David Sawatzky

Additional Resources:

InDepth: Diving Beyond 250 Meters: The Deepest Cave Dives Today Compared to the Nineties by Michael Menduno & Nuno Gomes

World Record Cave Dive – 282.6 m (927 feet) – Nuno Gomes

Pearse Resurgence 2020-Richard Harris and Craig Challen

Diver Records Doom | Last Moments-Dave Shaw

aquaCORPS:Accident Analysis Report from aquaCORPS #9 Wreckers (JAN95):What happened to Sheck Exley? by Bill Hamilton, Ann Kristovich And Jim Bowden

InDepth: Thoughts on Diving To Great Depths by Jim Bowden

InDepth: Playing with Fire: Hydrogen as a Diving Gas By Reilly Fogarty


Reilly Fogarty is an expert in diving safety, hyperbaric research, and risk management. Recent work has included research at the Duke Center for Hyperbaric Medicine and Environmental Physiology, risk management program creation at Divers Alert Network, and emergency simulation training for Harvard Medical School. A USCG licensed captain, he can most often be found running technical charters and teaching rebreather diving in Gloucester, Massachusetts.

Diving Safety

What Happened to Solid State Oxygen Sensors?

The news in 2016 that Poseidon Diving Systems would be incorporating a solid state oxygen sensor in their rebreathers sent a buzz through the rebreather community. Galvanic sensors, along with their legacy-1960s “voting logic” algorithms to boost reliability, had long been considered the weakest link in closed circuit rebreathers. Many heralded Poseidon’s subsequent 2017 roll-out as the dawn of a new era in rebreather safety. Five years later, Poseidon remains one of two companies (the other strictly military) to have adopted optical sensors. Technology reporter and tech diver Ashley Stewart examines some of the reasons why.

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by Ashley Stewart.

Header image: Karst Underwater Research (KUR) rebreather divers at Weeki Wachee. Photo by Kirill Egorov

For years, it’s been said there’s a revolution coming for the closed-circuit rebreather— a new, more reliable, safer replacement for the traditional electro-galvanic oxygen sensor, widely considered the weakest component of rebreathers. In March 2017, that revolution looked to be just over the horizon. Poseidon Diving Systems began shipping an offboard solid state sensor to supplement the MKVI’s and SE7EN’s galvanic sensors and offered to license the technology to other manufacturers. Though Poseidon subsequently incorporated the solid state sensor into its SE7EN rebreathers, nearly five years have passed, and not much else has changed.

Poseidon remains the only manufacturer using solid state sensors in recreational rebreathers. No other companies have licensed Poseidon’s technology. Major tech diving manufacturers—including JJ-CCR and Divesoft—say they don’t believe the technology in general is ready for use in rebreathers. Some manufacturers worry that the sensors won’t function accurately in humid environments over a wide range of pressures, and they claim that addressing these challenges will be costly. Meanwhile, divers who tested Poseidon’s sensors offered mixed reviews, and even the inventor who sold the sensor validation technology patent to Poseidon believes they should be used along with traditional sensors. (Poseidon gives divers the option of combining the sensors).



Poseidon’s solid state sensor integrated into the SE7EN rebreather. Photo courtesy of Poseidon.

Oxygen sensors are the enabling technology that made mixed gas rebreathers possible, replacing rebreathers that could only be used with pure oxygen. In 1968, marine scientist Walter Starck introduced the first commercial CCR, called the Electrolung, which used polarographic sensors. The next year, BioMarine Industries launched its CCR-1000, the predecessor of the US Navy’s Mk-15/16. The unit was the first mixed gas rebreather to use galvanic sensors, which do not require a power supply. 

In addition to removing a diver’s exhaled carbon dioxide, a rebreather must measure and maintain a safe and efficient level of oxygen, as measured by the partial pressure of oxygen, or PO2, via oxygen sensors.

Measuring PO2 correctly is critical, and failures can be fatal. Too little oxygen can cause hypoxia and loss of consciousness, and too much can result in central nervous system toxicity and convulsions. Since sport divers began using CCRs over twenty years ago, both conditions have caused numerous drowning fatalities.

With the exception of Poseidon and military manufacturer Avon Underwater Systems, modern close circuit rebreathers have more or less used the same type of sensor since the 1960s. Rebreathers typically use three galvanic sensors, averaging the readings of the two closest sensors and ignoring the third in a protocol called “voting logic,” originally created by Starck in response to the sensors’ noted unreliability.

Even with this voting logic, however, the sensors can be unreliable (See “PO2 Sensor Redundancy” in Additional Resources below). The galvanic sensors are cheap and time-tested, but they need to be recalibrated before every dive and expire after about a year. The new sensors—called “solid state sensors” or optical sensors—are expected to be more precise, reliable, and durable, though significantly more costly.

An illustration of luminescent quenching technology

Galvanic sensors are essentially wet-cell batteries that generate a millivolt current proportional to the PO2 in the loop. Conversely, Poseidon’s solid state sensor uses luminescent quenching, wherein a red LED light excites the underside of a special polymer surface, which is covered with a hydrophobic membrane and exposed to the gas in the breathing loop. A digital color meter then measures the responding change in fluorescence, which is dependent on oxygen pressure, and an algorithm calculates the PO2.

Experts more or less agree that the right solid state sensor could make rebreathers safer, but the market is split on whether the technology is ready for use in rebreathers and just how much better they’d have to be to justify the cost.

Field Test Results

Poseidon advertises its sensor as “factory-calibrated and absolute, delivering unsurpassed operating life, shelf life, and calibration stability.” Richard Pyle, a senior curator of ichthyology at Hawaii’s Bishop Museum who works with Poseidon-affiliated Stone Aerospace, has tested Poseidon’s sensors for years, initially as a passive offboard check against Poseidon’s traditional galvanic sensors. Later, in November 2019, he said he began testing Poseidon’s prototype with the solid state sensor as the primary sensor in the unit. “From my perspective as a rebreather diver, this is the most significant game-changing way to know what you are breathing,” Pyle said. “We will never go back to the old oxygen sensors.”

Poseidon divers at 110 m/359 ft. Photo by John L. Earle

Pyle said he’s yet to fully analyze the data he’s collected to compare the performance of the solid state sensors against the galvanic sensors, but that  he’s had zero failures with the solid state sensors in the time he would have expected to have 50 to 100 failures with the galvanic sensors.

Likewise, Brian Greene, a Bishop Museum researcher who has tested the Poseidon sensors with Pyle, estimated that he’s made hundreds of dives with the solid state sensors without failure. But, not everyone has had this experience.

Sonia Rowley, an assistant researcher at the Department of Earth Sciences in University of Hawai’i at Mānoa, told InDepth that she experienced a variety of repeated failures when testing Poseidon’s system alongside Pyle beginning in 2016 and 2017, and Rowley dictated to InDepth specific dive logs detailing many of the failures. She wrote about her experience in the book “Close Calls.

Poseidon CEO Jonas Brandt said the company has tested the sensors since 2017 at different depths and temperatures, and that it has only seen one possible failure.



Arne Sieber is a sensor technology researcher who said he developed the O2 sensor validation technology used in the Poseidon rebreather and sold the patent to Poseidon. Sieber is now researching uses for the solid state sensor including in the medical market. He told InDepth he believes the best way to incorporate the solid state sensors into rebreathers would not be to substitute one for the other, but to combine sensor types and design a rebreather that incorporates both. 

Traditional galvanic sensors have advantages over the solid state sensors, Sieber said—they’re cheap, simply designed, low-voltage, and time-tested. Also, while solid state sensors are very accurate at measuring low PO2, they become less sensitive at about 1.6 bar, and are more prone to incorrect readings of higher PO2 levels than galvanic sensors. As for whether the sensors can function in humid environments, Sieber said the sensors can work well in liquids, such as when used for blood analysis (though the sensors are used to measure much lower partial pressures of oxygen) and for measuring oxygen content in the sea. Liquid can delay the amount of time it takes a sensor to read a partial pressure, but it does not falsify the results, Sieber said. Of Poseidon’s system, Sieber said, “It’s a good start. It’s very important that someone starts. Someone always has to be the first one.”

Brandt said divers have the option of combining sensors in the company’s SE7EN rebreather, using either two galvanic sensors, two solid state sensors, or one of each, and said it could be argued that using one of each sensor is the most reliable.

Meanwhile, a catalyst may be coming to encourage the development and adoption of solid state sensors in Europe, Sieber said. European Union rules restrict the use of hazardous substances in electrical and electronic equipment, but galvanic sensors (which have an anode made of lead) have been granted an exemption in medical products because there is not a suitable alternative. The exemption is set to expire.

Poseidon’s solid state sensor sells to end users for as much as around $1,500USD, and its SE7EN rebreather units use a maximum of two onboard sensors. [Note: Poseidon sells the sensor for 6800SEK plus VAT from its website, which equates to 944 USD, some outlets in the states sell them for much higher]. Galvanic sensors, meanwhile, cost around $100USD, last one year and divers use three at a time. And, that’s just the cost of the sensors themselves: Manufacturers have to make significant investments in, and upgrades to, electronics systems to accommodate solid state sensors. 

Fathom rebreather lid showing its galvanic sensors. Photo courtesy of Fathom Dive Systems, LLC.

As for how long the sensors actually last, even the manufacturers don’t yet know. Poseidon has some from 2014, and they still work but have to be factory calibrated every two years. Galvanic sensors need to be replaced annually, while solid state sensors are expected to last much longer.

Brandt chalks the debate about its sensors up to competitiveness in the market. “I don’t think anyone likes that somebody cracked the nut,” Brandt told InDepth. Poseidon is ready to share the technology with other dive companies and manufacturers, Brandt said, but there have been no deals to date. “We wanted to raise the bar in technology and safety with the rebreathers, and to be honest, we haven’t said to anyone in this business that this technology is exclusive or proprietary.”

Market Interest

When the company first debuted its sensor, Brandt reported that companies like Hollis and Shearwater Research expressed interest in licensing the technology, but nothing has come so far of those discussions. Brandt did say one manufacturer reached out right before the pandemic. He declined to say which, but shared that it was a European company. Hollis brand manager Nick Hollis said his team recalls a conversation with Poseidon, but that it was back in 2014 or even earlier.

Shearwater director of sales and marketing Gabriel Pineda said the company is still interested in solid state sensors, but they see an issue with the price. “If you make the economic case of traditional galvanic sensors versus solid state or optical sensors, you have to dive a lot, and it takes a long time for these to make economic sense for a diver.”

Of course, Shearwater is not a CCR manufacturer, but the company is interested in seeing whether the sensors would be viable for use with its electronic control system that is used by a majority of rebreathers on the market. Shearwater currently has no immediate plans to license the technology from any manufacturer but Pineda said the interest remains. 

Meanwhile, Poseidon’s solid state sensor CCR is still making headway, Brandt said. The current biggest buyer of the Poseidon units is the military (Brandt said three European Union countries’ forces are actively using the sensors). The sales have continued throughout the pandemic, and, over the past six months, Poseidon has started an upgrading program, allowing divers to add the new sensors to their old units. Poseidon is looking into a program Brandt compares to Apple Care, where customers can pay a fee for maintenance throughout the life of the sensor.

Solid state sensors replace numerous galvanic sensors which have a one-year life. Photo courtesy of Richard Pyle.

Meanwhile, Avon Underwater Systems is using three solid state sensors in its MCM100 military rebreather. Kevin Gurr, a rebreather designer and engineer who sold his company, VR Technology Ltd., to Avon, said the company uses the sensors “because of the increased safety and the decreased user burden as far as daily calibration.”

Gurr, who designed and produced the Ouroboris and Sentinel closed circuit rebreathers at his prior company VR Technologies Ltd., believes it’s the cost that has discouraged other manufacturers. “It shouldn’t be about cost at the end of the day,” Gurr said. “The digital interface is so much safer.”

Martin Parker, managing director of rebreather manufacturer AP Diving, said his company follows solid state sensor development but has yet to come across a sensor that meets its accuracy requirements. One such sensor using luminescence quenching can achieve good accuracy through a replacement disk the user must apply to the sensor surface after each use.

“Having been in the diving business for 50 years, we don’t believe it is on any diver’s wish list to have to re-apply every diving day a new component, as simple as that is to do,” Parker told InDepth. “With no easy external measure of accuracy prior to the dive, it is easy to foresee that many divers would ‘push their luck’ and use the discs for multiple days, then when they get away with it, they would encourage other divers to do the same… with the inherent risk of DCS or O2 toxicity.”

Parker said that he’s aware of two additional sensors under development, but neither has shown a working product yet. He declined to identify any of the manufacturers, citing commercial sensitivity. “Hopefully, we will get these to evaluate in the next 12 months,” Parker said.

Divesoft co-founder Aleš Procháska said he believes Poseidon’s approach to the sensor could “lead to success.” Speaking generally about solid state sensors rather than about Poseidon’s specifically, Procháska said his company isn’t yet utilizing solid state sensors because he believes the sensors are unable to function in humid environments with extreme water condensation and not applicable over a  wide range of pressures. To be able to use one of these sensors in a rebreather, Divesoft wants it to be durable in high humidity, consume less energy, and have a good price-to-lifetime ratio. 

“It is possible to build a CCR with the currently available O2 solid state sensor but not without sacrificing important properties of the breathing apparatus,” he said, such as size and energy. “Overall, the reasons why no one currently sells this technology on the market seems to be quite simple. It’s extremely difficult to come up with a suitable and functional principle that would lead to a cheap, small, and low energy consuming solid-state sensor. Despite this, I do believe that it’s only a matter of time until someone solves this one.” Asked via email about the status of DiveSoft’s own work on the technology, Procháska replied, “Well, as I said earlier, it’s just a matter of time,” adding the text, “Aleš smiles.”

JJ-CCR lid showing its three galvanic sensors. Photo by Kees Beemster Leverenz.

Halcyon COO Mark Messersmith said that divers are slow to embrace new technologies in general, and the current sensors just aren’t deficient enough to merit widespread adoption or the investment from manufacturers. “It’s not unlike many other technologies,” Messersmith told InDepth. “People are often slow to embrace a new technology if the existing technology is functional. The existing tech needs to be vastly deficient, and existing oxygen sensors are still largely functional.” 

The bottom line: Solid state sensors might very well be safer, but there isn’t enough incentive for the market to make them a reality. 

David Thompson, designer of the JJ-CCR, told InDepth they don’t use the sensors because he doesn’t believe the technology is ready yet and research in that area is extremely expensive and difficult for what he believes is essentially a small market. “Analog cells have a long history, and in the right hands are very reliable, easily available, and have a long history of working in a rebreather environment which is very hostile,” Thompson said, adding that high humidity and temperature in a rebreather is a challenge for any sensor. “I am sure it will be in the future, but that future won’t be here yet.”

Additional Resources:

InDepth: Where Have All the Sensors Gone? Assessing the Global Oxygen Sensor Shortage

Rebreather Forum 3 Proceedings: PO2 Sensor Redundancy by Nigel A. Jones p. 193-202

Alert Diver: Oxygen Sensing in Rebreather Diving by Michael Menduno

Wikipedia: Electro-galvanic oxygen sensor


Photo by Daniel McMath 

Ashley Stewart is a Seattle-based technology journalist and GUE Tech 1 diver. Reach her via email: ashannstew@gmail.com, Twitter: @ashannstew, or send a secure message via Signal: +1-425-344-8242.

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