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Playing with Fire: Hydrogen as a Diving Gas

As every tekkie knows, helium is essential for deep diving due to the fact it’s non-narcotic and offers low breathing gas density. But it’s conceivable that hydrogen may one day become a part of the tech tool kit for dives beyond 200 m/653 ft, by virtue of the fact that it’s light, a little narcotic and offers the possibility of biochemical decompression. Diver Alert Network’s Reilly Fogarty has the deets.

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by Reilly Fogarty
Header photo courtesy of DAN.

The pool of people who explore the ocean depths beyond 122 m/400 ft is small, and the group of people who do it regularly and need to reach those depths quickly is microscopic. This niche application coupled with a significant fire hazard make it easy to understand why exotic gases like hydrogen have escaped both common use and public interest. 

Despite the obvious concerns, however, hydrogen has shown some capacity to ameliorate the effects of high pressure nervous syndrome (HPNS) in deep divers, improve function at extreme depth, reduce work of breathing, and present a possible alternative to helium in case of helium reserve depletion. Use of the gas has made it possible to dive deeper, get to depth faster, and stay there longer, but there is a substantial risk-versus-reward calculation to be made before considering its use. Interested in diving deep and dabbling in the cutting edge of diving research? Here’s what we know about using hydrogen as a diving gas. 

High Pressure Nervous Syndrome

Records of sojourns into the use of hydrogen as a breathing gas go back to as early as the 18th century with the experiments of Antione Lavoisier, but the use of the gas came to a head during the heyday of deep diving research in the late 20th century. From the Atlantis dives at Duke University to the Hydra Missions and the evolution of the Compagnie Maritime d’Expertises (COMEX) tables, researchers and deep divers quickly found issues as they pushed to explore deeper depths. Racing past 184 m/600 ft, researchers discovered that divers would face several new and potentially deadly phenomena in their push to the bottom. Chief among these was a condition that came to be called high pressure nervous syndrome. The condition was first described as “helium tremors” by Russian researcher G. L. Zal’tsman in 1961 and Peter B. Bennett in 1965 (Zal’tsman’s research was not available outside of the Soviet Union until 1967). 

1988 divers at work at -530msw. Photo by A.Tocco Comex
Comex and Club des Anciens de Comex sites :  www.comex.fr  and  www.anciencomex.com

Later this condition would be named and correlated with symptoms including tremors, headache, dizziness, fatigue, myoclonic jerking, muscular weakness, and euphoria. Gastrointestinal complaints, memory and cognitive deficits, psychomotor impairment, nightmares, and somnolence are also possible, and convulsions have been noted in animal models (Kangal, 2019). The mechanism of HPNS has not yet been proven, but there are several working theories. 

The first of these involves the compression of lipid components of the cell membranes in the central nervous system (CNS). Some theorize that the compression of these tissues may affect the transmembrane proteins, ion channels, and surface receptors critical to the signaling pathways of the CNS (Talpalar, 2007). Many connect the use of hydrogen to mitigate the effects of HPNS to this model. Some research has shown that anesthetic gases can reduce the effects of HPNS, and this has been proposed to be driven by some pressure reversal effect of narcosis (Kot, 2012). Hydrogen is  a narcotic gas, and this may be one component of its ability to reduce the onset or severity of HPNS. This mechanism, the compression of lipid components also appears to be the one that initially gave rise to the use of breathing gases as a way to ameliorate the effects of HPNS, with some groundwork for this foundation laid out by Peter B. Bennett, PhD, as early as 1989 (Bennett, 1989).

Other researchers have focused on neurotransmitters, including gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), dopamine, serotonin, acetylcholine, and others. These models have also shown promise, one study showing a GABA increase in the cortex diminishing HPNS signs in baboon models and another showing NMDA antagonists preventing convulsions in rats (Pearce, 1989, 1991). Similar studies have been conducted with a range of neurotransmitters and neuronal calcium ion channels with similar results. In short, there are several potential avenues for the specific mechanism of HPNS, and while the general mechanism is likely a combination of several models, none have yet been definitively proven. 

What we know is that there is notable variation in HPNS onset among divers (Bennett, 1989), and onset appears to be the result of a combination of breathing gas, compression rate, and depth. Faster compression, lower nitrogen, or hydrogen content in helium/oxygen breathing gases, and deeper depths have been correlated with more rapid onset and more severe symptoms (Jain, 1994). 

The Benefits of Hydrogen 

The use of hydrogen as a diving gas doesn’t just stem from its ability to reduce the onset of HPNS—it’s an extraordinarily light gas that’s useful in reducing work of breathing at extreme depth and a potential replacement for helium when worldwide demand has led to a quickly dwindling reserve. One U.S. Navy paper went so far as to propose hydrogen replacement of helium due to helium scarcity leading to a predicted depletion of supply by the year 2000 (Dougherty, 1965). Thankfully, that mark has come and gone due to the discovery of several new helium sources, but it’s not an unrealistic concern when the demand for helium is so high in manufacturing, aerospace, and technology. 

1988 divers at work at -530msw. Photo by A.Tocco Comex
Comex and Club des Anciens de Comex sites :  www.comex.fr  and  www.anciencomex.com

The benefits of hydrogen are notable, but the hazards are nothing to balk at. Little research has been done on the decompression or thermal properties of hydrogen in divers, it’s reported to be mildly narcotic, and it’s highly flammable. While oxygen is an oxidizer that can feed a fire, hydrogen is actively flammable—in the presence of sufficient oxygen and a source of ignition, it will combust in dramatic fashion. In practice, this combustibility is managed by reducing both the sources of ignition and the available oxygen. With the lower explosive limit of hydrogen being around 4% by volume, using less than this amount in normoxic environments effectively mitigates the fire risk but does little for deep divers. Instead, extremely hypoxic gases and high concentrations of hydrogen and helium have been used with great success. The COMEX Hydra VIII mission, for example, used a mixture of 49% hydrogen, 50.2% helium, and 0.8% oxygen to take divers to a maximum depth of 536 m/1,752 ft.

The decompression profiles used in these deep saturation dives appear to be effective as well. As early as 1992, COMEX researchers found that teams of divers on a hydrogen mixture at a depth of 210 m/686 ft performed tasks more efficiently, both cognitively and physically, than their counterparts on helium (Offshore-mag.com, 1996). The same experiment resulted in a bubble study that showed “no evidence of bubbles” in the divers following decompression—an exercise in small sample sizes perhaps, but with promising results. (Note: Researchers suspected that “biochemical decompression” might be involved, i.e., a process in which metabolism of H2 by intestinal microbes facilitates decompression—ed.) U.S. Navy research found similar results, indicating that hydrogen increased the capacity for physical effort as a result of a decrease in work of breathing at depth (Dougherty, 1965). 

Functionally, the benefits of the gas are hard to dispute; work of breathing is a constantly growing area of concern for dives at  all depths, HPNS is a constant concern, and minimizing decompression is a perpetual goal. For divers reaching extreme depths without the ability to perform saturation dives, diving to depths beyond 122m/400 ft is a repetitive gamble with no guarantee of success. Rapid compression combined with limited options for gas mixes result in the need to play a dive profile by “feel” with emergency plans in place to respond to HPNS onset, and more than one diver, likely including Sheck Exley (See: “Examining Early Technical Diving Deaths,” by Michael Menduno, InDepth 2.2) has lost their life to the condition. 

Comex Hydra 8: Tests on Divers.

The Hazards of Hydrogen

By the same token, hydrogen presents unique hazards that require careful consideration. Unexplored decompression profiles and limited research on long-term effects make the decision to dive with hydrogen difficult, and the significant risk of fire places divers in more danger than is typically acceptable. Add to this the limited applications (either hydrogen content below 4% in normoxic environments or oxygen content below 6% in high-hydrogen environments), and it quickly becomes apparent why hydrogen hasn’t yet hit the mainstream. 

The presence of project divers in our community performing near saturation dives with trimix and makeshift in-water habitats skews favor away from hydrogen as well, making it a gas viable only for the deepest dives without the option for saturation. The case for hydrogen isn’t entirely up in smoke, however. Research showing significant decompression benefits or depletion of helium reserves may well push us toward helium’s more flammable cousin, but it’s unlikely you’ll see hydrogen at your favorite fill station any time soon. 

References

  1. Ozgok Kangal, M.K., & Murphy-Lavoie, H.M., (2019, November 14). Diving, High Pressure Nervous Syndrome. (. In: StatPearls StatPearls Publishing. 
  2. Talpalar, A.E., (2007, Nov 16-30). High pressure neurological syndrome. Rev Neurol., 45(10), 631-6.
  3. Kot, J., (2012). Extremely deep recreational dives: the risk for carbon dioxide (CO2) retention and high pressure neurological syndrome (HPNS). Int Marit Health, 63(1), 49-55.
  4. Bennett, P.B., (1989). Physiological limitations to underwater exploration and work. Comp Biochem Physiol A Comp Physiol., 93(1), 295-300.
  5. Pearce, P.C., Clarke, D., Doré, C.J., Halsey, M.J., Luff, N.P., & Maclean, C.J., (1989. March). Sodium valproate interactions with the HPNS: EEG and behavioral observations. Undersea Biomed Res. 16(2), 99-113.
  6. Pearce, P.C., Halsey, M.J., MacLean, C.J., Ward, E.M., Webster, M.T., Luff, N.P., Pearson, J., Charlett, A., & Meldrum, B.S., (1991, July). The effects of the competitive NMDA receptor antagonist CPP on the high pressure neurological syndrome in a primate model. Neuropharmacology,30(7), 787-96.
  7. Jain, K.K. (1994, July). High-pressure neurological syndrome (HPNS). Acta Neurol. Scand.,90(1), 45-50.
  8. Dougherty, J., (1965). The Use of Hydrogen As An Inert Gas During Diving: Pulmonary Function During Hydrogen-Oxygen Breathing At Pressures Equivalent to 200 Feet of Sea Water.
  9. Saturation diving tests support claims for hydrogen breathing mix, (1996). Offshore-mag.com.

Additional Resources

John Clarke, retired scientific director of the U.S. Navy Experimental Diving Unit, is knowledgeable about hydrogen diving and has used that knowledge both in his blogs as well as in the undersea sci-fi thrillers, the Jason Parker Trilogy , of which he is the author.

Diving with Hydrogen – It’s a Gas 

Hydrogen Diving – A Very Good Year for Fiction

Hydrogen Narcosis

The deepest saturation dive (using hydrogen) to 534 m/1,752 ft conducted by COMEX

Courtesy of Susan Kayar.

Biochemical Decompression:
Fahlman, A., Lin, W.C., Whitman, W.B., & Kayar, S.R., (2002, November). Modulation of decompression sickness risk in pigs with caffeine during H2 biochemical decompression. JApp. Physio. 93(5).

Kayar, S.R., & Fahlman, A. (2001). Decompression sickness risk reduced by native intestinal flora in pigs after H2 dives. Undersea Hyperb Med., 28(2), 89-97.

Fahlman, A., Tikuisis, P., Himm, J.F., Weathersby, P.K., & Kayar, S,R., (2001, December). On the likelihood of decompression sickness during H2 biochemical decompression in pigs. J Appl Physiol., 91(6), 2720-9.



Reilly Fogarty is a team leader for risk mitigation initiatives at Divers Alert Network (DAN). When not working on safety programs for DAN, he can be found running technical charters and teaching rebreather diving in Gloucester, Mass. Reilly is a USCG licensed captain whose professional background includes surgical and wilderness emergency medicine as well as dive shop management.

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Out of the Depths: The Story of British Mine Diving

If sumps and solo cave diving are, well, a bit too Brit for you, you may want to consider diving into the perfusion of flooded serpentine chert, copper, limestone, silica, slate, and tin mines that honeycomb the length and breadth of the Kingdom. Fortunately, British tekkie and member of UK Mine/Cave Diving (UKMC) in good standing, Jon Glanfield, takes us for a guided tour.

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By Jon Glanfield
Header image courtesy of Alan Ball.

When many think of the UK’s caves, with wet rocks and their penchant for darkness, often the images conjured are of tight, short, silty sumps, that can only be negotiated by intrepid explorers outfitted with diminutive cylinders, skinny harnesses, wetsuits and typically a beard. These are the domain and natural playground of the well-known, highly-respected, Cave Diving Group (CDG). 

In truth, much of our sceptered isle’s caves are of this ilk, but there is an alternative for the diver who favours a more conventional rig, extra room to manoeuvre, and perhaps a more team-orientated approach—one that is less than optimal in many of the true cave diving environments of the UK.

Holme Bank. Photo by Ian France.

Alongside our natural cave diving venues, we also sport a varied collection of flooded mines across the length and breadth of the Kingdom. In the south and southwest, miners have extracted metals such as tin and  copper, while in South Wales it was the mineral, silica. The Midlands Linley Caverns were a source of limestone before being converted to a subterranean munitions store in WWII. Sadly, access to these is no longer feasible. In the rolling hills of the Derbyshire Dales, flinty, hard chert strays close enough to the surface to be mined. In North Wales, the once-proud slate industry has left its Moria and Mithril redolent halls and tunnels beneath the landscape, while copper and slate underlay parts of Cumbria. Meanwhile, just over the border in Scotland, limestone was the resource that drove us to follow its veins into the earth.

Mike Greathead descending the stairway to heaven. Photo by Ian France.

Undeniably, here in the UK, mine diving has a much shorter documented history than that of its close cousin cave diving, but some of the luminaries of this dark world were, and are, active in both. Some of the initial dives in sites like the Cambrian slate mine were undertaken by the incomparable Martyn Farr, Geoff Ballard, and Helen Rider in 2006. But it wasn’t until 2014 that it was further explored and lined by the likes of Cristian Christea, Ian France, Michael Thomas, and Mark Vaughan amongst others. 

Both Rich Stevenson and Mark Ellyatt, who were part of the vanguard of the technical diving revolution in the UK, had personal dramas on trimix dives in the deep shaft of the Coniston Copper Mines, the depth of which runs to 310 m/1012 ft. Ellyatt made his dive at 170 m/555 ft in the early 2000s in a vertical 2 m/6.5 ft square shaft, dropping away into the 6º C/43º F frigid blackness.

Mines Over Matter

As was alluded to, the differences in cave and mine diving are significant. Conventional, redundant open and closed technical rigs can be employed in mine diving due to the predictably larger tunnels, passages, and chambers. Water movement is negligible, so often regular braided lines can be used, lines which would not endure the flow in many of the UK’s upland cave locations. Small teams can dive in safely. 

No Exit. Photo by Chris Elliot.

In general, it is not common to surface and explore the sumped sections of the mines, due to often dangerously contaminated or hypoxic air quality. Also, in some cases, oils and other contaminants have leached into the water. The ever-present risk of collapse—both in the submerged sections and in the dry access adits or portals—haunt divers’ thoughts and is far more common in mines than in the smooth, carved bore of a naturally-formed cave. Casevac (the evacuation of an injured diver) is complex, long-winded, and often dangerous for those involved, and in the event of an issue involving serious decompression illness (DCI), almost certainly helicopter transportation would be necessary given the remote locations.

Landowner access—or, more commonly, denial of access—is an ubiquitous spectre in the underground realm, dry or wet, and much effort is directed at maintaining relations with landowners to safeguard the resources. Some of the most frequented mines are accessible only via traverse of private property, which could be agricultural, arboreal, and in one case, bizarrely on the grounds of an architectural firm. Careful management of these routes into the mines is critical, as is demonstrating respect for the land owner and complying with their requirements when literally on their turf.

At the more prosaic level though, simply getting into some of the mines is a mission on its own, necessitating divers’ decent levels of fitness, the use of hand lines, and sometimes as much consideration of dry weight to gas volume as the dive planning itself. Careful thought and prior preparation are also required in terms of both accident response and post-dive decompression stress, given the exertion expenditure simply to clear the site.

A passageway in Aber Las. Photo by D’Arcy Foley.

Many of the mines are relatively shallow, mostly no more than 30 m/98 ft with exceptions in the notable and notorious Coniston, and the almost mythic levels in Croesor, extending beneath the current 40 m/130 ft galleries that are known and lined. Though, what the mines lack in depth, they make up for in distance and grandeur. 

Aber Las mine survey. Courtesy of UKMC.

Aber Las, or Lost, is more accurately a forgotten section of Cambrian that extends nearly 600 m/1961 ft from dive base at the 6 m/20 ft level, and a second level 300 m/984 ft long at 18 m/59 ft. The section features no less than 35 sculpted chambers hewn off the haulage ways with varying dimensions and exhibiting differing slate removal techniques. Cambrian’s chambers less than a mile away are larger still, and a lost line incident here could be a very bad day given the chambers’ cavernous aspect.

In The Eye of the Beholder

Beauty is—as they say—in the eye of the beholder, but it would be disingenuous to try to draw comparisons between the UK’s mines and the delicacy of the formations in the Mexican Karst, the light effects through the structures in the Bahamian sea caves, or the sinuous power tunnels of Florida. In mines, the compulsion to dive is due in part to the industrial detritus of man, encapsulated in time and water.

In mines, the compulsion to dive is due in part to the industrial detritus of man, encapsulated in time and water.

Parallels are frequently drawn between wreck diving and mine diving, but often the violence invoked at the demise of a vessel—the massive, hydraulic inrush of fluid and the subsequent impact on the seabed—wreaks untold damage and destruction upon its final resting place. In contrast, nature reclaims her heartlands in the mines by stealth: a slow, incremental and inexorable seep of ground water, no longer repulsed by the engines from the ages of men, gradually rising through the levels to find its table. The result is often preserved tableaus of a former heritage with a rich diversity of artefacts left where last they served.

A leftover crate in the Croesor mine. Photo by Alan Ball.

Spades, picks, lanterns, rail infrastructure, boots, slowly decomposing explosive boxes, battery packs, architectural joinery, scratched tally marks, and, even in some cases, the very footprints of the long-past workers in the paste that was cloying, coiling dust clouding the passages and stairways, can be picked out in the beam of a prying LED.

Spades, picks, lanterns, rail infrastructure, boots, slowly decomposing explosive boxes, battery packs, architectural joinery, scratched tally marks, and, even in some cases, the very footprints of the long-past workers in the paste that was cloying, coiling dust clouding the passages and stairways, can be picked out in the beam of a prying LED.

Underpinning, protecting, preserving, and improving these gems of the realm is the UK Mine and Cave Diving Club (UKMC), which formed as mine diving intensified in the mid 2000s. So it was that Will Smith, D’Arcy Foley, Sasha London, Jon Carter, Mark Vaughan, and Ian France, all of whom are respected and experienced cave divers in their own right, forged the club to foster and engage with a community of like-minded divers. 

Sadly, in 2014, Will Smith fell victim to the insidious risks of contaminated air in the Aber Las mine system, which he had been lucky enough to re-discover and in which he conducted early exploratory dives as the club gained traction and direction.

As new members filter into the ranks, new ideas, new agendas, and new skill sets re-shape the club’s direction. At present, we are rebooting the club with a remastered website, focusing on new objectives and seeking opportunities to improve, catalogue, and document the resources we husband.

Lines laid in the Cambrian slate mine. Photo by Mike Greathead.

Exploration continues: the club is laying new line in some areas. What’s more, through our demonstrable respect and care for existing sites, the club is facilitating exploration in previously inaccessible sites, and lost and forgotten sites will resurface. Meanwhile, we’re improving the locations we frequent weekly for the benefit of trainees, recreational (in the technical sense) divers, and survey divers alike. Archaeological projects are rising from the ennui of lockdown; we’re establishing wider links with mine diving communities elsewhere to share techniques, data, and ultimately hospitality.

In Welsh folklore, a white rabbit sighted by miners en route to their shifts was believed to be a harbinger of ill fortune, but for Alice, following the rabbit into its hole led her to a whimsical and magical place. Be like Alice, and come visit the Wunderland!

Additional Resources:


Jon Glanfield was lucky enough to get his first puff of compressed air at the tender age of five, paddling about on a “tiddler tank,” while his dad was taught how to dive properly somewhere else in the swimming pool. A deep-seated passion for the sport has stayed within him since then, despite a sequence of neurological bends in the late 90s, a subsequent diagnosis of a PFO, and a long lay-off to do other life stuff like kids, starting a business, and missing diving. Thankfully, it was nothing that a bit of titanium and a tube couldn’t fix. He faithfully promised his long-suffering wife (who has, at various anti-social times, taken him to and collected him from recompression facilities) that “this time it would be different” and that he was just in it to look at “pretty fishes.” So far, only one fish has (allegedly) been spotted in the mines. The ones Jon has encountered in the North Sea while wreck diving just obscured the more interesting, twisted metal.

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