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).
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.
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.
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.
- Ozgok Kangal, M.K., & Murphy-Lavoie, H.M., (2019, November 14). Diving, High Pressure Nervous Syndrome. (. In: StatPearls StatPearls Publishing.
- Talpalar, A.E., (2007, Nov 16-30). High pressure neurological syndrome. Rev Neurol., 45(10), 631-6.
- 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.
- Bennett, P.B., (1989). Physiological limitations to underwater exploration and work. Comp Biochem Physiol A Comp Physiol., 93(1), 295-300.
- 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.
- 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.
- Jain, K.K. (1994, July). High-pressure neurological syndrome (HPNS). Acta Neurol. Scand.,90(1), 45-50.
- 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.
- Saturation diving tests support claims for hydrogen breathing mix, (1996). Offshore-mag.com.
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.
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.
InDepth’s Holiday Rebreather Guide: 2022 Update
Making a list. Checking it twice. Gonna find out which breathers are naughty or nice. That’s right! It’s time again for InDEPTH’s Holiday Rebreather Guide.
This year, the Guide features 28 models of back, chest, and side-mounted rebreathers, including two new entries, for your shopping operation. So, get out your pre-buy checklist, and that gift certificate and start ogling your loop of your fancy. Ho ho ho!
by Michael Menduno, Amanda White and Kenzie Potter
Holiday images by Jason Brown, BARDO CREATIVE
1DEC 2022—Ho ho ho! Once again, we have updated InDEPTH’s Holiday Rebreather Guide adding two new rebreathers; the new Gemini sidemount mCCR from Fathom Systems, and the generic breathing Machine (GBM) back mounted eCCR from Scubatron. We also updated the features on the Divesoft Liberty sidemount, and the JJ-CCR. This year, Vobster Marine Systems was acquired by UK-based NAMMU Tech, which plans to rename and re-issue a version of the VMS Redbare. See link below.
Finally, Innerspace Systems’ founder Leon Scamahorn agreed to work on getting us the needed information to add the storied Megalodon to the Guide. Scratch last year’s coal, Xmas cookies for you Mr. Scamahorn! Happy holidays shoppers, here is our updated rebreather guide! Mind those PO2s!
17DEC2021: Ho Ho Ho! We have updated our Holiday Rebreather Guide with new rebreathers and updated features. Despite repeated requests, the only major closed circuit rebreather we are missing is Innerspace Systems’ Megalodon and its siblings. Tsk, tsk Leon Scamahorn, you’ve been a naughty boy! Behold, here is our updated guide. Mind those PO2s!
Sport diving rebreathers have come a long way since storied explorer Bill Stone trialed his 80 kg/176lb fully-redundant “Failsafe Rebreather For Exploration Diving” (F.R.E.D.), and spent a cool 24-hours underwater as part of his paradigm-shifting 1987 Wakulla Springs Project. In retrospect, looking back over the last 30-some years, the “Technical Diving Revolution,” which emerged in the late 1980s to late 1990s, was ultimately about the development and adoption of rebreather technology.
However, it took the fledgling tech community at least a decade to adapt mixed gas technology for open circuit scuba, including establishing the necessary supporting infrastructure, which was the first and necessary step in the move to rebreathers. A little more than a decade after Stone showcased FRED, British diving entrepreneur Martin Parker, managing director of then AP Valves, launched the “Buddy Inspiration,” the first production closed circuit rebreather designed specifically for sport divers, earning him the moniker, the “Henry Ford of Rebreathers.” [The brand name later became AP Diving] KISS Rebreathers followed a little more than a year later with its mechanical, closed circuit unit, now dubbed the KISS Classic. The rest as they say, is history, our history.
Today, though open-circuit mixed gas diving is still an important platform, rebreathers have become the tool of choice for deep, and long exploration dives. For good reason, with a greatly extended gas supply, near optimal decompression, thermal and weight advantages, bubble-free silence, and let’s not forget the cool factor, rebreathers enable tech divers to greatly extend their underwater envelope beyond the reach of open circuit technology.
As a result, divers now have an abundance of rebreather brands to choose from. Accordingly, we thought it fitting this holiday season to offer up this geeky guide for rebreather shoppers. Want to find out whose breathers are naughty or nice? Here is your chance.
Your Geeky Holiday Guide
The idea for this holiday guide was originally proposed to us by Divesoft’s U.S. General Manager Matěj Fischer. Thank you Matěj! Interestingly, it doesn’t appear to have been done before. Our goal was to include all major brands of closed circuit rebreathers in back mount and sidemount configuration in order to enable shoppers to make a detailed comparison. In that we have largely succeeded. We also included Halcyon Dive Systems’ semi-closed RB80 and more recent RBK sidemount unit, which are both being used successfully as exploration tools.
Absent are US-based Innerspace Systems, which makes the Megalodon and other models, as well as Submatix, based in Germany, which manufactures the Quantum and sidemount SMS 200, neither of which returned our communications. M3S, which makes the Titan, declined our invitation to participate, as they recently discontinued their TITAN CCR—they will be coming out with a replacement unit, the TITAN Phoenix CCR in the near future. We did not include the MARES Horizon, a semi-closed circuit rebreather that is aimed at recreational divers. No doubt, there may be brands we inadvertently missed. Our apologies. Contact us. We can update.
Update (22JUL2021): French rebreather manufacturer M3S contacted us and sent us the specs for their updated chest-mounted Triton CCR, which are now included in the guide.
Update (9DEC2020): Submatix contacted us and the Guide now contains their Quantum (back mount) and SMS 200 (sidemount) rebreathers. We were also contacted by Open Safety Equipment Ltd. and have added their Apocalypse back mounted mechanical closed circuit rebreather. We will add other units as they are presented to us by the vendors.
It’s The Concept, Stupid
The plan was to focus on the feature sets of the various rebreathers to provide an objective means to compare various units. But features by themselves do not a rebreather make. As Pieter Decoene, Operations Manager at rEvo Rebreathers, pointed out to me early on, every rebreather is based on “a concept,” that is more than just the sum of its features. That is to say that the inventors focused on specific problems or issues they deemed important in their designs; think rEvo’s dual scrubbers, Divesoft’s redundant electronics, or integration of open and closed circuit in the case of Dive Rite’s recently launched O2ptima Chest Mount. Shoppers, please consider that as you peruse the various offerings. My thanks to Pieter, who helped us identify and define key features and metrics that should be considered.
Though not every unit on the market has been third-party tested according to Conformitè Europëenne (CE) used for goods sold in the European Union, we decided to use CE test results for some of the common feature benchmarks such as the Work of Breathing (WOB), and scrubber duration. For vendors that do not have CE testing, we suggested that they use the figures that they publicize in their marketing materials and asked that they specify the source of the data if possible. As such, the guide serves as an imperfect comparison, but a comparison nonetheless.
Also, don’t be misled by single figures, like work of breathing or scrubber duration as they serve only as a kind of benchmark—there is typically a lot more behind them. For example, whether a rebreather is easy to breathe or not is a function of elastance, work of breathing (WOB) and hydrostatic imbalance. In order to pass CE, the unit must meet CE test requirements for all three issues in all positions from head down, to horizontal trim, to being in vertical position (Watch that trim!), to lying on your back looking upwards. It’s more difficult to pass the tests in some positions versus others, and some units do better in some positions than others.
The result is that some of the feature data, like WOB, is more nuanced than it appears at first glance. “The problem you have is people take one value (work of breathing for instance) and then buy the product based on that, but it just isn’t that simple an issue,” Martin Parker explained to me. “It’s like people buying a BCD based on the buoyancy; bigger is better, right? Wrong! It’s the ability of the BCD to hold air near your centre of gravity determines how the BC performs. With rebreathers you can have good work of breathing on a breathing machine only to find it completely ruined by it’s hydrostatic imbalance or elastance.”
Due to their design, sidemount rebreathers are generally not able to pass CE requirements in all positions. Consequently, almost all currently do not have CE certification; the T-Reb has a CE certification with exceptions. However, that does not necessarily mean that the units haven’t been third-party tested.
Note that the guide, which is organized alphabetically by manufacturer, contains the deets for each of their featured models. In addition, there are two master downloadable spreadsheets, one for back mounted units and one for sidemount. Lastly, I’d also like to give a shout out to British photog phenom Jason Brown and the BARDOCreative Team (Thank you Georgina!), for helping us inject a bit of the Xmas cheer into this geeky tech tome [For insiders: this was Rufus and Rey’s modeling debut!]. Ho, ho, hose!
With this background and requisite caveats, we are pleased to offer you our Rebreather Holiday Shoppers’ Guide. Happy Holidays!!
Ed. note: Most prices shown below were specified by manufacturer before tax.
Download our two master spreadsheets, one for back mounted units and one for sidemount to compare rebreathers.
Special thanks to Amy LaSalle at GUE HQ for her help assembling the feature spreadsheets.
Michael Menduno is InDepth’s editor-in-chief and an award-winning reporter and technologist who has written about diving and diving technology for 30 years. He coined the term “technical diving.” His magazine aquaCORPS: The Journal for Technical Diving (1990-1996), helped usher tech diving into mainstream sports diving. He also produced the first Tek, EUROTek, and ASIATek conferences, and organized Rebreather Forums 1.0 and 2.0. Michael received the OZTEKMedia Excellence Award in 2011, the EUROTek Lifetime Achievement Award in 2012, and the TEKDive USA Media Award in 2018. In addition to his responsibilities at InDepth, Menduno is a contributing editor for DAN Europe’s Alert Diver magazine and X-Ray Magazine, a staff writer for DeeperBlue.com, and is on the board of the Historical Diving Society (USA)
Amanda White is the managing editor for InDepth. Her main passion in life is protecting the environment. Whether that means working to minimize her own footprint or working on a broader scale to protect wildlife, the oceans, and other bodies of water. She received her GUE Recreational Level 1 certificate in November 2016 and is ecstatic to begin her scuba diving journey. Amanda was a volunteer for Project Baseline for over a year as the communications lead during Baseline Explorer missions. Now she manages communication between Project Baseline and the public and works as the content and marketing manager for GUE. Amanda holds a Bachelor’s degree in Journalism, with an emphasis in Strategic Communications from the University of Nevada, Reno.
Kenzie Potter Stephens is a production artist for InDepth as well as part of the GUE marketing team. She earned her BS degree in Industrial Engineering and Marketing at the Karlsruhe Institute of Technology (KIT) in Germany, which assists her in using her multicultural upbringing to foster international growth within the community. In addition to her activities as a yoga teacher and an underwater rugby trainer, she has completed her GUE Tech 1 and Cave 1 training and is on her way to becoming a GUE instructor. Not letting any grass grow under her feet, she has also taken on a second major in biochemistry in order to create a deeper understanding of our planet’s unique ecosystems as well as the effect of diving on human physiology.
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