Why Is Helium Used in Diving Apparatus?

Diving apparatus has evolved significantly over the years, with advancements in technology and our growing understanding of the underwater environment. One such advancement is the use of helium in breathing gas mixtures for diving. But what makes helium so crucial for diving, and how is it employed in various applications? In this article, we’ll explore the reasons behind its use in diving apparatus and the future of helium in diving.

The Importance of Breathing Gas Mixtures in Diving

While diving, it’s essential to provide divers with a breathable gas mixture that allows them to operate safely and efficiently at various depths. The composition of this breathing gas mixture has significant implications for the diver’s overall performance and health during a dive.

Understanding the Basics of Breathing Gas Mixtures

When scuba diving, the primary breathing gas mixtures consist of oxygen, nitrogen, and sometimes helium. Oxygen is critical for sustaining life, while nitrogen is present in traditional air mixtures. However, nitrogen can cause issues during deep diving, which is where helium becomes vital. Helium is added to create specialized diving gas mixtures such as heliox (helium and oxygen) and trimix (helium, oxygen, and nitrogen).

The Role of Nitrogen in Traditional Air Mixtures

Nitrogen makes up about 78% of the air we breathe, but in the context of diving, it presents certain challenges. When diving, nitrogen can be absorbed by the body’s tissues, which may lead to decompression sickness or “the bends” during ascent. Decompression sickness occurs when dissolved nitrogen forms bubbles in the body, causing pain, tissue damage, and potentially life-threatening complications.

The Limitations of Nitrogen in Deep Diving

Apart from decompression sickness, nitrogen narcolepsy is another potential issue when using conventional air mixtures during deep dives. Nitrogen narcosis is a condition where nitrogen under pressure affects the diver’s brain, leading to impaired judgment and cognitive function. For these reasons, alternative gas mixtures and decompression procedures are required for deep diving.

The Unique Properties of Helium

Helium has specific properties that make it well-suited for use in diving gas mixtures. Let’s explore some of these unique characteristics:

Helium’s Low Solubility in Tissues

One of the main benefits of helium in diving gas mixtures is its low solubility in human tissues. This means that it is less likely to cause decompression sickness compared to nitrogen, as it does not form as many bubbles in the body upon ascent.

Helium’s Low Density and Its Effect on Breathing

Helium’s low density also has an impact on a diver’s ability to breathe effectively during deep dives. The low density means that the gas is more comfortable to breathe compared to nitrogen, reducing the work of breathing and making it more manageable at greater depths.

Helium’s Inert Nature and Safety Considerations

As an inert gas, helium does not participate in chemical reactions, reducing the risks associated with flammability or toxicity. This makes helium-based gas mixtures safer for divers to use, especially when diving at depths where other gases may become dangerous or reactive under pressure.

The Development of Helium-Based Breathing Mixtures

Helium mixtures have a long history of use in diving and have continued to evolve to meet the needs of various diving applications.

The History of Heliox and Trimix

Heliox was first developed in the early 20th century as a safer alternative to air mixtures for deep diving. This mixture replaced nitrogen with helium, significantly reducing the risks of decompression sickness and nitrogen narcosis. Trimix was later developed to add a small amount of nitrogen back into the mix, providing a balance between the benefits of helium and the cost-effectiveness of using nitrogen.

The Advantages of Helium Mixtures in Deep Diving

Helium-based mixtures have several advantages in deep diving situations. As mentioned earlier, helium’s low solubility and low density make it more suitable for deep diving applications. Additionally, using helium mixtures allows for longer bottom times and better overall performance during deep dives, making it the preferred choice for technical and commercial divers.

The Challenges and Drawbacks of Using Helium Mixtures

While there are many benefits to using helium mixtures in diving, they also come with certain drawbacks. The primary challenge is the cost, as helium is more expensive than nitrogen. In addition, the specific training and skills required to safely use and handle helium mixtures can be a barrier for some divers.

Practical Applications of Helium in Diving

Helium-based gas mixtures have been widely adopted across various diving applications, demonstrating their versatility and importance in underwater operations.

Commercial and Technical Diving

Commercial and technical divers often work at greater depths than recreational divers, making helium mixtures essential for their safety and effectiveness. Helium-based gases such as heliox and trimix provide the necessary breathing gas mixture to support these challenging diving operations.

Scientific Research and Exploration

Helium mixtures are also used in scientific research and exploration dives, where divers need to access deep or hard-to-reach locations. The use of helium allows researchers to safely work at depths that would otherwise be dangerous or impossible.

Military and Specialized Operations

Specialized military diving operations, such as search and rescue or covert operations, often use helium mixtures in their diving apparatus to support their mission objectives while protecting the divers’ health and safety.

The Future of Helium in Diving Apparatus

As the diving industry and technology continue to progress, the role of helium and its alternatives are integral to the future of diving apparatus.

Innovations in Breathing Gas Technology

New technologies and innovations in breathing gas mixtures and delivery systems may change the way helium is used in diving apparatus. This could lead to improved performance, increased safety, and potentially lower costs for divers, ultimately shaping the future landscape of diving.

The Impact of Helium Shortages on the Diving Industry

Helium shortages worldwide have raised concerns about the sustainability of using helium in diving mixtures. This, combined with its rising costs, has prompted researchers and the diving industry to explore alternatives to helium and develop more sustainable practices.

Alternative Gases and Potential Solutions

As a response to helium shortages, alternative gases are being explored for use in diving applications. Gases such as argon, neon, and hydrogen have been considered as potential substitutes with varying degrees of success. As the industry continues to adapt, the role of helium in diving apparatus may change, but its contributions toward diving safety and effectiveness will always be remembered.