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Not A Theory — A Fact! How NAUITEC Manages Isobaric Counter Diffusion
by Daniel Millikovsky
There is some confusion in the technical diving community as to whether we should pay attention to the physical law while planning gas switches, particularly on ascent. Here are some of the basics of this topic and how NAUI’s technical division, NAUITEC, has addressed this matter in training and diving operations since 1997.
Fact: Isobaric counterdiffusion is a real gas transport mechanism. We need to pay attention to it in mixed gas diving.
Fiction: Isobaric counterdiffusion is a theoretical laboratory concept and doesn’t affect divers at all.
From NAUI Technical Diver (textbook):
Isobaric counterdiffusion (ICD) describes a real gas transport mechanism in the blood and tissues of divers using helium and nitrogen. It’s not just some theoretical concoction, and it has important impacts for tech diving. It was first observed in the laboratory by Kunkle and Strauss in bubble experiments, is a basic physical law, was first studied by Lambertsen and Idicula in divers, has been extensively reported in medical and physiology journals, and is accepted by the deco science community worldwide.
Isobaric means “equal pressure.” Counterdiffusion means two or more gases diffusing in opposite directions. For divers, the gases concerned are the inert gases nitrogen and helium and not metabolic gases like oxygen, carbon dioxide, water vapor, or trace gases in the atmosphere. Specifically, ICD during mixed gas diving operations concerns the two inert gases moving in opposite directions under equal ambient pressure in tissues and blood. In order to understand this, we have to consider their relative diffusion speeds. Lighter gases diffuse faster than heavier gases. In fact, helium (He) is seven times lighter than nitrogen (N2) and diffuses 2.65 times faster.
If a diver has nitrogen-loaded tissue, and if their blood is loaded with helium, this will result in greater total gas loading because helium will diffuse into tissue and blood faster than nitrogen diffuses out, resulting in increased inert gas tensions. Conversely, if a diver has helium-loaded tissues, and their blood is loaded with nitrogen, this will produce the opposite effect: Helium will off-gas faster than nitrogen on-gases, and total inert gas tensions will be lower. This last case is what we can call in decompression planning a “Good ICD,” but we need to choose the fractions of N2 wisely on ascent.
Also, Doolette and Mitchell’s study of Inner Ear Decompression Sickness (IEDCS) shows that the inner ear may not be well-modelled by common (e.g. Bühlmann) algorithms. Doolette and Mitchell propose that a switch from a helium-rich mix to a nitrogen-rich mix, as is common in technical diving when switching from trimix to nitrox on ascent, may cause a transient supersaturation of inert gas within the inner ear and result in IEDCS. They suggest that breathing-gas switches from helium-rich to nitrogen-rich mixtures should be carefully scheduled either deep (with due consideration to nitrogen narcosis) or shallow to avoid the period of maximum supersaturation resulting from the decompression. Switches should also be made during breathing of the largest inspired oxygen partial pressure that can be safely tolerated with due consideration to oxygen toxicity.
In the case of dry suits filled with light gases while breathing heavier gases, the skin lesions resulting are a surface effect, and the symptomatology is termed “subcutaneous ICD.” Bubbles resulting from heavy-to-light breathing gas switches are called “deep-tissue ICD,” obviously not a surface-skin phenomenon. The bottom line is simple: don’t fill your exposure suits with a lighter gas than you are breathing and avoid heavy-to-light gas switches on a deco line. In both cases, the risk of bubbling increases with exposure time.
More simply, light to heavy gas procedures reduces gas loading, while heavy to light procedures increases gas loading. Note, however, that none of these counter transport issues come into play when diving a closed circuit rebreather.
The NAUITEC Way
ICD is not scientific theory, it is fact. Understanding and avoiding ICD is the way to reduce bubble formation and an increased risk of DCS, and to allow for a more efficient decompression practice in the long term.
Deep trimix dives require a high helium and low nitrogen mix [Note that NAUITEC mandates an equivalent narcotic depth (END) of 30 m, similar to Global Underwater Explorers (GUE)]. NAUITEC takes a hierarchical approach to trimix decompression based on risk reduction.
In its preferred “Zero Order Rule” (zero risk from ICD), NAUITEC recommends that divers not switch from helium to nitrogen (nitrox) breathing mixtures upon ascent. Instead, divers decompress on their bottom gas (trimix) until reaching their 6 m/20 ft stop, and then decompress on pure oxygen (O2). This reduces task loading and minimizes switch changes.
If the diver wants to reduce their deco obligation and/or add a deep deco gas, they would switch to an intermediate deco mix, specifically a “hyperoxic” trimix, also called helitrox or triox, with an oxygen fraction greater than 23.5%. In practice this is accomplished by replacing the helium with oxygen and keeping the fraction of N2 the same, or ideally less. This avoids a N2 slam from ICD. Note that it is recommended that NAUI divers always maintain an equivalent air depth (END) of no more than 30 m/100 f.
This is what we recommend and practice, and we believe it offers less risk than switching from a trimix bottom gas to an enriched air nitrox (EAN) 50, (i.e. 50% O2, 50% N2) at 21 m/70 ft, which is a common community practice. The bottom line here is that in-gassing gradients for nitrogen have been minimized by avoiding isobaric switch. THERE MUST BE A HIGH BENEFIT TO RISK RATIO to deviate from Zero Order Rule!
The additional rules present increased risk. The First Order Rule: No switches from helium to nitrogen breathing mixes deeper than 30 m/100 ft. The Second Order Rule mandates no switches from helium to nitrogen mixes deeper than 21 m/70 ft.
The last rule seems to be common in technical diving, but it has certainly not been formally tested. Just say no when the risks outweigh the benefits. Many times, the benefit of a gas switch does not outweigh the risk. Risk reduction is always the primary goal.
GUE On Isobaric Counterdiffusion
By Richard Lundgren
GUE does not dispute Isobaric Counterdiffusion (ICD) as it’s a natural part of how we achieve decompression efficiency, i.e. maximizing the gradient between the different inert gases in a diver’s tissues and what is being respired. This is sometimes referred to as the positive ICD effect.
The flip side of the coin, the negative ICD effect, involves a potential increased risk for decompression illness (DCI), most commonly subclinical manifestations affecting the inner ear and causing inner ear decompression sickness (IEDCS).
Although the exact mechanics are not known, one potential aggravating factor could well be ICD when the gradient resulting from a switch from a helium to a nitrox mix is too large. This is sometimes called a “nitrogen slam.” This occurs when a gas with slow diffusivity is transported into a tissue more rapidly than a higher-diffusing gas is transported out, like when switching from bottom gas, for example a Trimix 15/55 (15% O2, 55% helium, balance N2) to a nitrox decompression gas like Nitrox 50 (50% O2, 50% N2) at 21m/70 ft. This can result in supersaturating of some tissues and consequently, bubble formation.
Based on ICD theory alone, one could draw the conclusion that any gas switch not containing helium after a trimix/heliox dive would be provocative and increase the decompression stress. This is where academics need to be tuned to the application and empirical evidence.
The practice of “getting off the mix early and deep,” which led some divers to switch to air at great depth in order to maximize the off gassing of helium, was a common early practice in the tech community. It was a practice that most likely resulted in elevated risk of not only DCI, but also inert gas narcosis and the problems it can engender. This practice, as most people likely know, was not subscribed to by GUE.
On the contrary, GUE was the first organization to call for helium-enriched gases when diving deeper than 30 m/100 ft, both for bottom gas and decompression gas. We were also early advocates for switching from helium-based bottom gas to nitrox 50 under special circumstances.
However, it should be made very clear though, that among the very active GUE dive community, we have seen no indications or significant statistics implying that the DCI risk or occurrence is elevated when switching to Nitrox 50 as the first deco gas after a 72m/250ft dive breathing Trimix 15/55. For deeper dives, additional deco gases are used. All of these contain helium.
Another possible issue could occur when divers switch to their helium-based back gas briefly after decompressing on Nitrox 50 but before switching to pure oxygen, and/or taking an oxygen break during their 6 m/20 ft O2 decompression. However, based on thousands of decompression dives in the GUE community, these gas breaks have not been reported to cause problems. Note that these switches occur at shallow depths, and therefore reduced pressure gradients.
Superficial ICD, i.e. when the body is surrounded by a less dense gas compared to what’s being respired is more of a theoretical problem for divers, as we don’t use helium mixes to inflate our dry suits for the obvious reasons of thermal conductivity.
Interestingly, the concerns over ICD may at first glance seem irrelevant to rebreather (CCR) divers, assuming that their diluent remains the same throughout the dive. But remember most CCR divers rely on open circuit bailout, which may require gas switches.
Note: The British Sub Aqua Club (BSAC) recommends that divers allow for a maximum of 0.5 bar difference in PN2 at the point of the gas switch. According to former BSAC Tech lead Mike Rowley, “The recommendation isn’t an absolute, but a flexible advisory value so a 0.7 bar differential isn’t going to bring the Sword of Damocles down on you.”
Not A Theory — A Fact! References:
NAUI Technical Diver, National Association of Underwater Instructors, 2000.
Wienke B.R. & O’Leary T.R. Isobaric Counterdiffusion, Fact And Fiction. Advanced Diver Magazine
Technical Diving in Depth, B.R. Wienke
Lambertsen C. J., Bornmann R. C., Kent M. B. (eds). Isobaric Inert Gas Counterdiffusion. 22nd Undersea and Hyperbaric Medical Society Workshop. UHMS Publication Number 54WS(IC)1-11-82. Bethesda: Undersea and Hyperbaric Medical Society; 1979; 182 pages.
Doolette, David J., Mitchell, Simon J. (June 2003). “Biophysical basis for inner ear decompression sickness.” Journal of Applied Physiology, 94(6): 2145–50.
Daniel Millikovsky is a lifetime NAUI member (NAUI# 30750). He’s been a NAUI instructor exclusively for 22 years, a Course Director for 20 years, and in 2016, became a Course Director Trainer and Representative in Argentina. Daniel is a very active NAUI Technical Instructor Examiner (#30750L) for several courses including OC and CCR mixed gas diving. He has also been a member of the NAUI Training Committee since 2020. He owns Argentina Diving, a NAUI Premier, Pro Development, and Technical Training Center based in Buenos Aires, Argentina.
Daniel began diving in 1993 as a CMAS diver and then continued with his NAUI career, becoming an instructor in 1998. He opened his first NAUI Pro Scuba Center (DIVECOR) in Cordoba, Argentina. Daniel is enthusiastic about teaching and training and is a sought after presenter at numerous international dive conferences and shows. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org, website: www.argentinadiving.com.
Richard Lundgren is the founder of Scandinavia’s Baltic Sea Divers and Ocean Discovery diving groups, and is a GUE Instructor Trainer, an Instructor Examiner, and a member of its Board of Directors. He has participated in numerous underwater expeditions worldwide and is one of Europe’s most experienced trimix divers. With more than 4000 dives to his credit, Richard Lundgren was a member of the GUE expeditions to dive the Britannic (sister ship of the ill-fated Titanic) in 1997 and 1999, and has been involved in numerous projects to explore mines and caves in Sweden, Norway, and Finland. In 1997, in arctic conditions, he performed the longest cave dive ever carried out in Scandinavia. Richard’s other exploration work has included the 1999 filming of the famous submarine, M1, for the BBC; the side scan sonar surveys of the Spanish gold galleons off Florida’s Key West in 2000; and the search for the Admiral’s Fleet, an ongoing project that has already led to the discovery of more than 40 virgin wrecks perfectly preserved in the cold waters of the Swedish Baltic Sea.
Teaching Again as the World Tries to Reopen
Conducting classes and supervising dive ops during the midst of a pandemic can be challenging. Here GUE instructor Francesco Cameli details his experience teaching his first “Fundies” class since lockdown! Welcome to the new normal.
By Francesco Cameli
Header Photo by Damon Loble.
The world has definitely become a little stranger as we all try to deal with the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic and are forced to adapt our way of life to safeguard ourselves from infection. Needless to say, it has been a challenging time for diving instructors around the world, and certainly here in Southern California.
Whether you like reef structure, macro photography, kelp forests, or deep wrecks, Southern California offers some of the best diving in the world. However, it is often overlooked in favor of warmer waters and more exotic locations. It’s true that conditions here are at times challenging, but as the saying goes, “if you can dive in SoCal, you can dive anywhere.” As such, it has been fertile ground for divers seeking out GUE training in an effort to perfect their underwater skills.
As we launched into 2020, diving conditions in SoCal were stunning. We were seeing 30 m/100 ft plus visibility days, and the new GUE community-inspired dive boat, Big Blue, had just been delivered and began conducting dive operations. Importantly, our four active local GUE instructors were busy with classes. Then the pandemic hit. In early March, the governor of California issued a stay-at-home order and all activity shut down. As a result, courses—and to a large extent local diving—were placed on hold.
As of early July, we have resumed limited diving operations carefully following the recommendations from Divers Alert Network to insure our divers’ safety. We have also begun modified classes. In fact, as luck would have it, I just finished teaching my first Fundamentals class in this new COVID-19 world, and wanted to share my experience of what it was like.
The short answer is that it was not unlike many Fundamentals classes before it. While there were a couple of small changes that I think overall actually made for a better learning experience for my students, there were a few minor drawbacks.
Taking The Plunge
Because of the required social distancing, I experimented with working with the students remotely for all of the lectures and some of the land drills. At first, I was unsure as to how this was going to pan out, but it actually turned out great. You see, typically here in Los Angeles, because of the logistics of going diving, we tend to pre-load the class with all the academics in one marathon day consisting of Modules 1-6 followed by the swim test. That was traditionally how I had been doing it. Frequently though, you could see the students start to struggle with concentration after about four modules. So I would take a break and do the swim test but then, they would be tired from the swim test. Not so anymore! This last class, we scheduled three Zoom meetings, each lasting about two to three hours, where we could go through the modules at a leisurely pace. This allowed each student to meet in the comfort of their home and at a time that suited them.
As these were going so well, I then tried Valve drills, Basic 5, and SMB deployment with us all sitting in our rigs. I have to say, that seemed to be well received, too. I was able to focus easily on each student, and the picture quality meant it was really no different than if they had been standing before me in person. So far, so good!
Now, because these meetings only took up the equivalent of one day of time, we were left with three days of diving (versus two, normally). The cool part is that we had ample time, thanks to our swift local boat Big Blue to still get three dives in per day. So instead of doing six dives, we did nine. We filled in the missing land drills on the boat, which—as it was travelling with COVID-19 load restrictions—still gave us plenty of room to social distance and work on the drills.
Everyone of course was wearing a mask at all times and kept a bit more to themselves. The students benefited greatly from these extra dives as we could really focus and spend time on the subject matter that required more attention. I feel, after all, that my students benefit most from the time they get with me in the water, so the more the merrier.
We were even able to conduct the swim test in the open ocean. The boat leant itself well to the task as 10 times around the boat rather neatly worked out to be 300 yards. As for the breath hold, we deployed 15 m/50 ft of current line with a diver holding the line taught while the students swam from the boat to the buoy.
So, what about the diving itself? Well, managing the students on the surface was easy enough. Keeping them 2 m/6 ft or so apart worked while we discussed dives and debriefed. Then once the regulators were in, we would get closer and descend as a team. Honestly, this was no great chore.
The one slight hiccup I had not anticipated, however, came in the form of the S-Drill COVID-19 style. The donation itself went without an issue, and the switching to a necklace instead of the donated regulator was no problem at all. The full long hose deployment and swimming part were also somewhat unspectacular with the exception of the fact that you could see the cogs turning as the out of gas (OOG) student tried to decide on hose routing once a direction was picked. Because they were simply holding the donated regulator and were in fact breathing from their own necklace, they did not always have the regulator correctly orientated and therefore had to be reminded that the hose would normally be on the right side of their face. This of course is something we never actually think of when the regulator is in our mouths. The biggest confusion, in my opinion, came at the moment when it was time to clean up.
What I noticed was that frequently the donating student would try to clean up too soon before the OOG student was back on their primary regulator. I can only assume that they were confused by seeing their team mate holding a regulator in their hand and not breathing from it, which would normally signify it was time for the donating diver to clean up. This small confusion was easy enough to clear up in the subsequent debrief, and the students managed just fine after that. This was a small price to pay, I feel, to ensure that our students remained safe and that we reduced as much as possible the risk of passing COVID-19 through regulator sharing. Just in case, we had disinfectant ready on the boat to re-sanitize a regulator that was unwittingly used not by its rightful owner, but the need never presented.
In conclusion, I think the differences are not so great that the class suffered in any way. As it went, in this case, both students earned a well-deserved tech pass and were rather chuffed (those Brits!) with how the class proceeded. I myself greatly enjoyed the online lecturing and the extra dives. I may well try to find a way to keep conducting fundamentals classes in this manner in the future to maximize water time and split up the modules for better assimilation and retention.
Happy Diving everyone!
Born in France but hailing from Italy via England, Francesco’s passion for the ocean was ignited early on by the work of Jaques Cousteau, and Luc Besson’s film “The Big Blue.” Growing up in the seaside village of Portofino, Italy, Francesco spent just about every daylight hour of his summers freediving. In his 20s and 30s, he found himself locked in a recording studio in London or Los Angeles making records for the likes of Queen and Duran Duran as well as Korn, Stone Sour, Avatar, and others. Francesco rediscovered the ocean on a trip to Kona, which is where his scuba journey began in earnest. Since then, he has averaged over 200 dives a year cultivating his own skills. Once he found GUE, he worked his way through the curriculum and became a GUE instructor in 2019. That year, the passionate and exacting polymath was one of the busiest GUE instructors in Los Angeles, and is now working to become a Tech One instructor in 2020. Some say you can occasionally hear him singing to the fish.
Big Blue was built by a GUE instructor with the GUE and tech diving community in mind. She’s got a big wide ladder, wide diver spaces to accommodate doubles, CCRs, comfy seating for long rides to far targets and speed. Big Blue is one of the fastest dive boats in the Los Angeles area. What’s more, it offers a tech savvy crew. Visit us at: www.bigbluediveboat.com or on FB!
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