The idea of breathing underwater without cumbersome oxygen tanks has been the dream of science fiction writers for many years. In George Lucas’ movie “The Phantom Menace”, Obi-Wan whips out a little Jedi underwater breathing apparatus and dives in. As things tend to happen in our world, yesterday’s science fiction has turned into today’s science fact due to one Israeli inventor with a dream.
There are a number of limitations to the existing oxygen tank underwater breathing method. The first is the amount of time a diver can stay underwater, which is the result of the oxygen tank capacity. Another limitation is the dependence on oxygen refueling facilities near the diving site which are costly to operate and are used to compress the gas into the tanks which might be dangerous if not handled properly. The final problem has to do with the actual use of oxygen tanks underwater. When these tanks are in use they empty out and change the balance of the diver in the water.
Engineers have tried to overcome these limitations for many years now. Nuclear submarines and the international space station use systems that generate Oxygen from water by performing ‘Electrolysis’, which is chemical separation of Oxygen from Hydrogen. These systems require very large amounts of energy to operate. For this reason, smaller, diesel fueled submarines cannot use these systems and are required to resurface to re-supply their oxygen tanks every so often. Divers can’t even consider carrying such large machines not to mention supplying them with energy. To overcome this limitation an Israeli inventor, Alon Bodner, turned to fish.
Fish do not perform chemical separation of oxygen from water; instead they use the dissolved air that exists in the water in order to breathe. In the ocean the wind, waves and underwater currents help spread small amounts of air inside the water. Studies have shown that in a depth of 200m below the sea there is still about 1.5% of dissolved air. This might not sound like much but it is enough to allow both small and large fish to breathe comfortably underwater. Bodner’s idea was to create an artificial system that will mimic the way fish use the air in the water thus allowing both smaller submarines and divers to get rid of the large, cumbersome oxygen tanks.
The system developed by Bodner uses a well known physical law called the “Henry Law” which describes gas absorption in liquids. This law states that the amount of gas that can be dissolved in a liquid body is proportional to the pressure on the liquid body. The law works in both directions – lowering the pressure will release more gas out of the liquid. This is done by a centrifuge which rotates rapidly thus creating under pressure inside a small sealed chamber containing sea water. The system will be powered by rechargeable batteries. Calculations showed that a one kilo Lithium battery can provide a diver with about one hour of diving time.
Bodner has already built and tested a laboratory model and he is on the path to building a full-scale prototype. Patents for the invention have already been granted in Europe and a similar one is currently pending examination in the U.S. Meetings have already been held with most major diving manufacturers as well as with the Israeli Navy. Initial financial support for the project has been given by Israel Ministry of Industry and Commerce and Bodner is currently looking for private investors to help complete his project.
If everything goes according to plan, in a few years the new tankless breathing system will be operational and will be attached to a diver in the form of a vest that will enable him to stay underwater for a period of many hours.
By Iddo Genuth