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What is A Ventilator And Why Is It So Important?

Forget rebreathers. With the pandemic still spreading, ventilators have arguably become one of the most essential pieces of life-support kit on the planet. We asked anesthesiologist and director of Karst Underwater Research (KUR) Andy Pitkin to brief us on these life-saving devices. Take a deep breath.



by Andrew Pitkin MBBS MRCP FRCA
Header photo by Sungmin Cho from Pixabay

The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted one piece of medical equipment above all: the ventilator. What are these life-support devices, and how do they work? 

Until the 20th century, with a few exceptions, any patient unable to breathe for themselves was doomed to die. The large polio outbreaks that swept through the world in the 1930s and 40s prompted the design and manufacture of the first reliable means of respiratory support, the iron lung. Properly termed a negative pressure ventilator, and commonly referred to as a ‘tank’ ventilator, the iron lung and some smaller derivatives enclosing just the chest (‘cuirasse’ ventilators) were developed by Drinker1 and Emerson into the only equipment able to keep patients alive when their respiratory muscles had been paralyzed by the poliovirus. Well-funded hospitals in the USA were able to set up large wards full of iron lungs (Fig 1), but it was across the Atlantic, in the northern European country of Denmark, that the modern intensive care unit with its ubiquitous positive-pressure ventilators was born. 

Fig 1. At the height of the 1948 poliomyelitis epidemic 82 patients required ventilation in iron lungs at the same time in Los Angeles. Photo courtesy from “Patenting the Sun” by Jane S. Smith.

In the mid-1950s, Copenhagen, Denmark’s capital city, was ravaged by a severe polio epidemic that completely overwhelmed its handful of iron lungs and forced the physicians there to adopt methods borrowed from the operating room just to keep people alive. In desperation, the director of the infectious diseases hospital, the Blegsdamhospitalet, asked his anesthesiologist colleague Dr Bjorn Ibsen for help. Under Ibsen’s direction,  patients received tracheostomies and intermittent positive-pressure ventilation using a rebreathing system called a Waters circuit (Fig 2). 

Fig 2. A Waters circuit used for hand ventilation of poliomyelitis victims in the 1952 outbreak in Copenhagen, Denmark. A simpler system without the soda lime canister was used later, with the disadvantage that a higher flow rate of oxygen/nitrogen mixture was required to prevent excessive rebreathing of carbon dioxide. Illustration by InDepth.
Bjorn Ibsen. Photo courtesy of P.G. Berthelson.

Rebreather divers will easily recognize this as a pendulum rebreather system, but in this case the gas moved in and out of the patient’s lungs not through their own efforts, but by a medical student squeezing and releasing the bag (counterlung) 20 to 25 times per minute, 24 hours a day, for periods of up to several months. In the absence of enough mechanical ventilators, hundreds of medical students risked exposure to the much-feared polio virus to keep these patients, many of them children, alive (Fig 3). The success of positive-pressure ventilation in dramatically reducing mortality in Denmark rapidly spread throughout the world and the modern intensive care unit was born.

Fig 3. A patient with poliomyelitis being hand ventilated with a Waters circuit through a tracheostomy. Medical students were paid 30 shillings (about $100 today) for an 8-hour shift (with a 10-minute break for a cigarette in the middle!). Photo by Lassen HCA.

Human muscle power was soon replaced with mechanical power using either motorized bellows or a pressure-regulated gas source controlled by an automatic valve (like pressing the purge valve on a regulator’s second stage). The first classification by Mapleson2 divided ventilators into flow generators and pressure generators; both could be further subclassified into time-cycled, pressure-cycled and volume-cycled units, depending on what parameter the machine used to switch from inspiration (breathing in) to expiration (breathing out) and vice versa. An example of a flow generator is a typical bellows ventilator such as the Oxford Penlon unit (Fig 4), still used in some hyperbaric chambers because of its mechanical simplicity, and many anesthesia machines in operating rooms have similar ventilators built in. 

Fig 4. The venerable Penlon Oxford ventilator is a simple bellows system driven by a 60 psi compressed gas supply. A smaller set of bellows can be substituted for use in children. Photo courtesy of A. Pitkin.

Modern Ventilators

With advances in microelectronics in the 1970s it became feasible to integrate gas control valves with flow and pressure sensors to allow a single ventilator to work in a flow-generating mode as well as a pressure-generating mode, and many other modes became possible that could not be realized with a simple mechanical ventilator. Units such as the Siemens Servo 900 (Fig 5) and the Puritan Bennett 7200 were in the vanguard of this approach.

Fig 5. The Siemens Servo 900C, a ventilator I became intimately familiar with while training in intensive care in the early 1990s. Introduced in 1971, its use of electronically-controlled scissor valves to regulate gas flow based on input from pressure and flow sensors represented a major advance over earlier designs. Photo courtesy of Siemens Healthineers. Special thanks to Healthineers’ media team divers!

Modern intensive care ventilators have evolved into complex computer-controlled systems that operate with a degree of precision, flexibility and sophistication that would astonish Ibsen and his contemporaries (Fig 6). In the rare cases that adequate oxygenation and/or carbon dioxide clearance cannot be achieved with conventional ventilators, highly specialized options such as high frequency oscillatory ventilation (HFOV) and extracorporeal membrane oxygenation (ECMO) also exist.

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Fig 6. Simplified schematic of the pneumatic system of a modern intensive care ventilator. For simplicity, this diagram omits many important components, including non-return and safety valves, calibration and alarm systems. Diagram courtesy of A. Pitkin.

A patient with respiratory failure must be intubated with a breathing (endotracheal) tube in the windpipe (trachea) which connects to the ventilator, and to tolerate this they often need sedation and occasionally chemical paralysis to prevent them from “fighting” the ventilator, although most modern ventilators have useful support modes that synchronize the ventilator with the patient’s own respiratory efforts. An alternative to the endotracheal tube placed through the mouth, especially useful in the longer term, is to place a tube in the trachea through the front of the neck (tracheostomy), and this approach undoubtedly contributed to Ibsen’s success in Copenhagen as many polio patients had paralysis of the muscles of their throat and voicebox (larynx) and so were unable to protect their lungs from contamination by coughing. Both endotracheal tubes and tracheostomies bypass the normal humidification that occurs in the upper airways so humidification of the gas supplied to the patient is important to prevent drying out of the lining of the airways.

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Current medical practice is to set tidal volumes at 6-8 ml/kg (ideal body weight) and adjust respiratory rate to achieve the desired carbon dioxide (CO2) clearance. Almost all modern ventilators can be time-cycled (most common), pressure- and volume-cycled. Patients are generally most comfortable when the partial pressure of CO2 in their blood (PaCO2) is just below normal but with severe respiratory failure it is frequently better to allow it to rise above normal as long as adequate oxygenation can be maintained rather than subjecting diseased lungs to a higher tidal volume or respiratory rate – this is called permissive hypercapnia.  Oxygenation is largely determined by the fraction of inspired oxygen (FiO2) and mean (average) airway pressure, the latter being influenced by a number of ventilator settings such as inspiratory/expiratory time ratio, positive end-expiratory pressure (PEEP) as well as patient factors such as lung compliance. For complex reasons it is common for other organ systems such as the heart and kidneys to fail in patients with respiratory failure, so for them to survive it requires a skilled team of doctors, nurses and other staff to monitor and intervene when problems occur. 

Bjorn Ibsen went on to establish the first real intensive care unit, which he called an ‘observation unit’, at the municipal hospital of Copenhagen where he was appointed chief of the anesthesiology department in 1954. He widened its scope to include any patient who needed respiratory or cardiovascular support for any reason, such as trauma, post-operative complications, sepsis and so on. One of the pioneering features was a multidisciplinary team approach that has stood the test of time and is still used today. Another was the idea that no matter what the original disease, the same principles of organ support apply. These ideas are so universally accepted now that it is hard for us to conceive of a time when they were not. 

Ventilators and the Covid-19 Virus

At the time of writing this, ventilators look like they could soon be in short supply and they cost tens of thousands of dollars. Why are they so complex and expensive? It is relatively easy to build a system of valves and sensors and an electronic control system that will function, but quite another to do so to the (justifiably) high standards of design quality, reliability, safety, ease of use and infection control that modern medicine demands. Getting any medical device approved by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is very expensive and time-consuming, and similar regulatory processes exist in Europe and the rest of the world. Nevertheless, some would argue that medical device costs (like medications) are out of control, but essentially the price of sophisticated medical technology is a balance between its development costs and the price that the market will support. 

Dr. Andrew Pitkin at work.

The COVID-19 pandemic has spawned a number of projects to tackle the projected shortage of ventilators with homebuilt systems. Usefully, the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency (MHRA) in the United Kingdom has published a set of specifications for a Rapidly Manufactured Ventilator System (RMVS), a minimum standard that such a ventilator has to meet to be useful, based on expert opinion3. These efforts are to be applauded, but use of such a ventilator would be close to a last resort, after all the ventilators in anesthesia machines in every operating room were in use. What is more, it doesn’t address the issue that patients with severe COVID-19 disease often have multiple organ involvement and it is the highly-skilled and cohesive medical and nursing teams to apply the principles that Ibsen and others pioneered that are the real limiting factor.


  1. Drinker P, McKhann CF. The use of a new apparatus for prolonged administration of artificial respiration. JAMA 1929; 92: 1658-61.
  2. Mapleson WW. The effect of lung characteristics on the functioning of artificial ventilators. Anaesthesia 1962;17:300-14.
  3. accessed April 17th, 2020.

Dive Deeper

Karst Underwater Research

Andrew Pitkin learned to dive in 1992 in the cold murky waters of the United Kingdom and started cave and technical diving in 1994. His first exposure to exploration was in 1995 when he was one of a team of divers who were the first to reach the bottom of the Great Blue Hole of Belize at 408 fsw (123 msw). Subsequently he has been involved in numerous cave exploration projects in Belize, Mexico and Florida.
From 1996-2000 he was employed at the Royal Navy’s Institute of Naval Medicine, running a hyperbaric facility, treating decompression illness, participating in research into outcome after decompression illness, submarine escape and testing of new military underwater breathing systems. He is one of a handful of civilians to be trained by the Royal Navy as a diving medical officer.  
He moved to Florida in 2007 and is currently on the faculty of the College of Medicine at the University of Florida in Gainesville. With Karst Underwater Research he has participated in numerous underwater cave exploration and filming projects. Like many explorers, he spends much of his spare time developing and building innovative equipment for exploration purposes.

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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!




InDepth’s Holiday Rebreather Guide: 2022 Update

by Michael Menduno, Amanda White and Kenzie Potter

Holiday images by Jason Brown, BARDO CREATIVE

A Guide to Backmount, Sidemount and Frontmount Rebreathers

1DEC 2022—Ho ho ho! Once again, we have updated InDEPTH’s Holiday Rebreather Guide adding two new rebreathers; the new Gemini sidemount, needle valve mCCR from Fathom Systems, and the Generic Breathing Machine (GBM) front mounted, needle valve mCCR, with a dive computer-compatible, solid state oxygen sensor 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. 

Dr. Bill Stone’s manned trial of F.R.E.D. at Wakulla Springs (1987). Photo courtesy of the US Deep Caving Team

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. 

Buddy Inspiration advertisement from 1998. Courtesy of AP Diving.

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.

Santa’s Little Helper: Meet Rufus, BARDO’s Chief Muse Officer (CMO)

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.

Backmount Rebreathers

* In 2005, AP Diving launched its Vision electronics with In-Plane Switching (IPS) which enhances colour and visibility
**Typical scrubber duration using AP Tempstik increases practical duration to more than double CE test rate figures – as the AP Tempstik shows scrubber life based on actual work rate, water temperature and depth.
*** The work of breathing is the effort required to push gas around the breathing circuit BUT that figure alone is meaningless without knowing two other parameters: Hydrostatic load and elastance. Note that AP Diving rebreathers meet the CE requirements in all diver attitudes for both Hydrostatic Imbalance 0 degrees (horizontal, face down) and Hydrostatic Imbalance +90 degrees (vertical, head up.)
**** APD’s handset offers a “dual display” feature showing data from both controllers on the same handset. The user can also see the gradient factors chosen and the mVolt outputs of the cells by holding a button down.
* Divesoft will offer an upgrade for existing Liberty users

* Note that we plan to re-release our “Intervention CCR” (iCCR) in 2021. The unit was withheld due risk of loop being force dived when unsafe (pending re-release 2021).This enables the diver the option to manually trigger bailout to a known safe OC gas at any time with one finger and/or auto-bailout the diver if loop gas being breathed reaches unsafe level. Either Hi/Lo PPO2 or high End-Tidal CO2.
**For CE certification the recommended Apocalypse Type IV CCR scrubber duration is 2hr 45min to a maximum dive profile surface to surface of 100m in 4’C water to 2.0% SEV (20mb) at the mouth.
***iCCR (2009) 3x digital galvanic coax, iCCR (2021) x2 galvanic 1x solid state
****All performance data near near identical to single scrubber option other than increased scrubber duration of up to 5 hrs to 100 m profile in 4’C water)
Published Testing: .pdf
* CisLunar series, MKVI 2009, SE7EN 2013, SE7EN+ 2019
** 40 m coldwater EN14143
*** Backmounted Trimix 10/70, 40M test: Backmounted Air
**** SE7EN+ Sport EU incl (harness, wing, computer, cylinders and sensors)

NOTE: Vobster Marine Systems were acquired by UK-based NAMMU Tech, which plans to rename and re-issue a version of the VMS Redbare (formerly the Sentinel) at some point in the future. See: Atlas CCR


Rey says he’s sticking to open circuit. What’s a Santa to do?

Sidemount Rebreathers

*Pre 2021 units are upgradebale
* For a tour of KISS rebreathers see:

Frontmount Rebreathers

*Tested with standard DSV, 6l OTS counterlungs, Upright/face forward, 40 m depth, 40.0 lpm RMV, Air diluent
**Tested with standard DSV, 45° head up/feet down orientation, 40 m depth, 40.0 lpm RMV, Air diluent
*** Micropore ExtendAir Cartridge:
180 liters of CO2 @ < 50 deg F [<10 C] (130 minutes @1.35lpm CO2)
240 liters of CO2 @ 50-70 deg F [10-20C] (180 minutes @ 1.35lpm CO2)
300 liters of CO2 @ >70 deg F [>20C] (220 minutes @ 1.35lpm CO2)
Test Parameters: 40 lpm RMV 1.35 lpm CO2130 fsw (40 m) depth Granular duration may be similar, but can vary greatly depending upon the type of granular and packing technique

 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.

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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, 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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