A plot line from a comic book unfolds as scientists and artists alike take inspiration from superheroes to develop technology that could allow humans to further explore ocean environments. Despite mankind's attempts to explore the world’s oceans since the 18th century, 95% of this vast, watery expanse remains a mystery.1 Heavy oxygen tanks and burdensome helmets are still needed to get to moderate depths, while the deep ocean lies mostly uncharted. Without super strength or super flexibility, divers turn to the next best superpower: the ability to breathe underwater.
Deep-sea exploration necessitates the design of equipment that functions under extreme conditions, challenge that seemingly only a technological genius like Iron Man could conquer. After all, the self-made billionaire created his own armor to escape captivity. A suit similar to Iron Man’s was needed for an expedition to an abandoned shipwreck off the coast of the Antikythera islands in the fall of 2014.2 In order to reach the 55 foot-deep shipwreck, the Canadian company HUBLOT developed the Exosuit, a 550 pound atmospheric diving system (ADS) that allows explorers to dive deeper and longer.3 The full metal suit combined with semi-closed rebreathing technology pragmatically favored function over form. A semi-closed rebreather involves a constant flow rate of oxygen, and any excess oxygen that is not inhaled is released back into the water in the form of small bubbles.4 Paired with the suit is a remotely operated vehicle (ROV) that takes high-quality photos in any lighting, which is useful in deep waters.3
Upon first glance, the suit seems incredibly cumbersome with its daunting rigidity and thick, pipe-like legs. However, many smaller components like foot pads and rotary joints make the suit more flexible; this allows the user to access previously uncharted deep waters with robotic efficiency.4 As the underwater version of Iron Man’s suit, the Exosuit has an exterior that can withstand extremely high pressures. The sturdy exterior, paired with the ROV camera, will allow scientists to identify new species of marine life, especially those that are visible due to phospholuminescence. The dangers of the depths unknown explored with a one-of-a-kind suit and camera seem to come right off the page of one of Stan Lee’s comics. Tony Stark would definitely approve.
Although Iron Man is revered for his cleverness and intelligence, the best superhero inspiration for diving technology is Aquaman and his ability to breathe freely underwater. Many innovators, including South Korean designer Jeabyun Yeon, have tried to mimic the ease with which Aquaman is able to breath below the surface. In January 2014, Yeon created a device that would allow divers to breathe underwater with only a piece of standalone equipment attached to the mouth, leaving behind the typical mask, alternate air source, air gauge, and other equipment necessary for a normal dive.5 Called the Triton, this gill-like mouthpiece extracts oxygen from water and compresses it into small storage tanks located on either side of a mouthpiece.5 While swimming, users would only need to bite into the mouthpiece for oxygen to begin flowing. Although aesthetically pleasing, this design received a lot of negative attention from scientists and scuba divers that prevented it from gaining funding from investors and traction in the media. For the design to be feasible, there must be a pump that can bring 24 gallons of water through its filtering system per minute; however no such pump is available at present.5 The Triton also does not account for possible oxygen toxicity, the condition where high pressures of stored oxygen can cause convulsions and potentially be fatal.6 Yeon originally intended for the design to be a revolutionary breakthrough in the diving community, but now the Triton is displayed on his website as a “product innovation studio project.”7 Although his project had little impact on the diving community, other scientists continue to find ways to bring Aquaman to life.
The University of Denmark are doing just that with the “Aquaman” crystal, marking a shift from developing wearable technology to researching materials science. In October of 2014, the university released news of the “Aquaman” crystal, a cobalt-based crystalline material that can absorb, store, and release oxygen without deteriorating or changing form through processes known as known as chemisorption and desorption. These processes involve multiple chemical transformations that produce a denser form of oxygen gas that can be stored in a compact form without causing toxicity to the user.8 As a result, this inorganic material possesses properties that rival diving equipment in both size and efficiency, potentially allowing divers to have almost superhuman, Aquaman-like characteristics when underwater. A powerful example of the crystal’s abilities is the absorption of the amount of oxygen in an average-sized room using just 10 liters of the material.8 Although the size of a scuba tank varies with the type of dive, the fact that the “Aquaman” crystal can hold three times as much pressurized pure oxygen as a conventional tank of the same size will inevitably decrease the weight of equipment that divers need underwater. Professor Christine Mackenzie, a scientist on the team, claims that only few grains of the crystal are needed to sustain a full trip underwater.8 The team is currently working on ways to access the stored oxygen, possibly by directly inhaling the crystal or by using a specialized tank.8 By eliminating or reducing the size of the tank, the “Aquaman” crystal would allow divers to explore hard-to-reach areas and put them in even closer contact with the organisms they are examining.
The parallels between scuba equipment and superhumans like Iron Man and Aquaman show how far underwater diving equipment has progressed. Even far-fetched concepts like the Triton give a glimpse of what the future may look like. The ability to breathe underwater opens the door to new discoveries both by granting divers to either dive more flexibly at moderate depths or get a more personal glimpse into the deep ocean. Scuba equipment continues to play a major role in how we understand one of the earth’s most mysterious ecosystems, especially in the face of climate change. What was once written off as superhuman and fantastic might just develop into our reality.
- National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. http://www.noaa.gov/ocean.html (accessed Oct. 12, 2014).
- Wallace, R. ‘Iron Man’ suit allows divers to reveal more of Antikythera shipwreck. http://www.sciencetimes.com/articles/677/20141012/iron-man-suit-allows-divers-to-reveal-more-of-antikythera-shipwreck.htm (accessed Oct. 12, 2014).
- The Exosuit. http://www.amnh.org/exhibitions/past-exhibitions/the-exosuit/the-exosuit (accessed Oct. 12, 2014).
- Scuba diving. http://www.scubadiving.com/training/basic-skills/are-you-ready-rebreathers (accessed Oct. 28, 2014).
- ‘Triton’ oxygen mask claims to draw oxygen from water while you swim. http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/2014/01/17/triton-oxygen-mask_n_4615558.html (accessed Oct. 12, 2014).
- Patel, D. N. et al. JIACM 2003, 4, 234-237.
- Yeon. Yanko Design. http://www.yankodesign.com/2014/01/03/scuba-breath/ (accessed Oct. 23, 2014).
- Sundberg, J. et al. Chem. Sci. 2014, 5, 4017-4025.