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  REBREATHERS


rebreather engineering drawing



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 DESIGNING A REBREATHER FOR EXPLORING THE ACHERON (ST CLAIR CAVE, JAMAICA)


By Guy Van Rentergem,  2008 ©

1. Introduction

In this document we describe the different parts of an oxygen rebreather for exploring and surveying the Acheron with its foul air. The main purpose of the design is to make it possible to visit in the Acheron during three hours (1 hour go, 1 hour return and 1 hour reserve), this with a double safety margin.

This means the rebreather should be reliable for minimal 5 hours doing light too moderate exertion. When in rest, consuming much less oxygen, the dwell time should rise to 15 hours and higher.

Other requirements are: easy to build, light, cheap and general available components, more or less cave proof.


2. How an oxygen rebreather works

2.1. The very short:

An oxygen rebreather is a closed breathing system filled with 100 % oxygen which recycles the user’s breathing gas. It provides oxygen to, and absorbs carbon dioxide produced by the user. The main parts of a rebreather are: the mouth piece, breathing hoses, counter lungs, scrubber, oxygen supply and regulator.

Process chart rebreather

2.2. The not so very short:

Let's say the rebreather is ready to be used and the counter lung is filled with 100 % oxygen. When we now inhale from the counter lung it will be emptied for a great part. Our body will use the inhaled oxygen it can use and convert it to carbon dioxide. When we breathe out into the mouthpiece there will be now about 4 % CO2 in the oxygen. The exhaled gas passes through the scrubber filled with lime where the CO2is absorbed and then the gas (now mostly oxygen again) is going into and filling the counter lung again where it is ready to be inhaled the next time.

As you can see, 4 percent of the gas volume has gone since it has been absorbed by the lime in the scrubber. That is why a constant flow of oxygen is added into the loop. So the volume we lose by absorbing the CO2 is refilled by a constant oxygen flow from the compressed gas cylinder.
The trick is now to determine a good flow of oxygen. Too much oxygen and the gas will be wasted through a relief valve. This happens when we are in rest consuming less oxygen and as result producing less CO2. So the constant flow of oxygen will surpass the amount of CO2 absorbed. This excess of gas will be vented to the air. This valve is located before the scrubber. Saving valuable scrubber and oxygen.

If the oxygen flow is too low the counter lung will be empty after a certain time and we can't breathe anymore. This happens when we do heavy work. then we need more oxygen and produce more CO2than added by the constant flow. A manual bypass valve will put more oxygen into the loop.

There are a lot of complicated tricks to regulate the oxygen level in a rebreather but for our goal a constant flow of oxygen is good enough. This is rather simple in construction at the cost of having some venting when we are resting. A manual bypass will aid us when we need more oxygen than the normal flow.

We breathe through a mouthpiece. But once the rebreather is in use we can't take it out of our mouth for e.g. talking, drinking ... And a nose clip is a must!! Otherwise the risk is too great to bring nitrogen into the system. And that is something we certainly don't want. Because once in the system it stays there (the absorber can't absorb nitrogen) and can reduce rapidly the effective oxygen volume we have in the breathing loop. Here is an example:

Let’s assume the total volume of the breathing loop (this is mouthpiece, hoses, canister and counter lungs) together with our lungs is 10 litres (0.36 cu ft). Now we take one breath from the outside through our nose and exhale into the breathing loop. That makes about 3 litres (0.1 cu ft) of air. The composition of air is 79 % N2and 21 % oxygen. So our 3 litres of air contains 2.4 litres (0.08 cu ft) of nitrogen. 2.4 litres N2 on a total volume of 10 litres means that 24 percent of our breathing loop will be filled with nitrogen gas!!! As you can see any addition of outside air will make the gas in the loop very fast unbreathable. The user of the rebreather will lose consciousness rapidly once there is 84 % percent inert gas (nitrogen and/or CO2)!

There are several causes why the percentage of CO2 in the loop can rise:

  1. when there is a breakthrough
  2. the absorber has worked out
  3. there is channelling through the absorber bed

Only the breakthrough is not too bad. This happens during heavy exertion when more carbon dioxide is produced than the absorber bed can handle. Once the workload returns to normal the breakthrough will stop. The other causes are fatal and must be avoided by careful planning. Always fill the scrubber with a new load of lime when using the rebreather. We never know what happened with the lime in the scrubber and old fillings must always be disposed. Only a new load of lime will guarantee us the good working of the scrubber. And the filling of the scrubber must be done very careful and in a controlled way. The lime must be stacked firm enough but still allowing gas to be passed but no rattling must be heard when the scrubber is shaken.

Any left over air in the rebreather must be purged before use. Normally purging goes like this: we breathe through the mouthpiece and exhale through the nose (without the nose clips). This we do till the counter lung is empty. When ready we must put the nose clips again on. But to shorten this purge cycle (should be done three times!) the system will be pulled vacuum through a manual pump before filling it with oxygen.

I confess, scuba gear is easier but for what we want to do a rebreather is the way to go. In principle a rebreather can be made very simple,  but I don't want to gamble with lives. So I want it to be safe too. That's why I also put all the electronics into it to measure all the parameters to check the quality of breathing gas. In theory one can say you do not need all these gizmo's but hey, we are not jumping into the swimming pool in our backyard but we are going into the Acheron! It's something like exploring the other side of the moon, only a lot cheaper ;-)

3. Parts of a rebreather

3.1. Mouthpiece

The question was if we were going to use full face mask or a mouthpiece. The full face mask seems to be the most favourable but in the hot humid climate where we will use the rebreather the mouthpiece got the preference. The main problem with a face mask is the seal between the face and the mask which is not 100 % air proof. The risk for contaminating the loop with nitrogen from the air is possible. Another problem is fogging of the face mask and excessive sweating, making it all very uncomfortable. We need a good view during the exploration, so everything hampering our sight must be banned.

The mouthpiece of a rebreather has two hoses. One for exhaling and one for inhaling. There are also two valves inside forcing the air in one direction through the breathing loop, enabling the right functioning of the rebreather.

If possible a shutoff valve should be installed. This prevents losing oxygen and polluting the loop with nitrogen when pulling the mouthpiece out of the mouth. But this also makes the construction more difficult. The shut off valve is a must when diving where the risk of flooding the loop with water is prominent. But a plug can do the same job in out of the water situations. The mouthpiece can be extracted from the mouth for a short time enabling the plug to be inserted without too much worries. The loop pressure is higher than the environment preventing nitrogen to rush into the system.

An elastic strap will be attached to the mouthpiece giving some relief to the jaw muscles.

3.2. Scrubber

The scrubber is a container with a bed of lime. The air is forced through the lime and will remove the user's exhaled CO2 through an exothermal chemical reaction.

We go for the vertical mounted axial scrubber. The radial scrubber seems to be more efficient but the axial type is a much simpler construction. Also the vertical axial scrubber is less prone to channelling. We can go for this design because the rebreather will be used most of the time in upright position, this in contradiction with a diver which has much more axis of freedom. The diameter of this canister must be > 15 cm. This to assure an optimal surface for the reaction front in the scrubber.

3.3. Breathing hoses

These are part of the breathing loop and connect the mouthpiece with the scrubber and counter lungs. They have to be flexible enough to assure a certain degree of comfort during use. Also the hoses must have a minimal diameter of 2 cm (3/4 inch) enabling minimal breathing resistance. A higher diameter is even better but this will raise the weight of the machine. Remember we carry the rebreather on the back. For a diver weight is not really a problem because of the law of Archimedes. Some dive rebreathers do indeed weight more than 100 pounds!

3.4. Lime

The rule of thumb is that 1 kg of lime is needed for 1 hour rebreather time doing moderate exertion. The scrubber will be filled with 5 kg of lime. This gives us a large enough safety limit.

3.5. counter lung

A rebreather is a closed circuit. So when we exhale the air has to go somewhere to be temporary stored. This is done in the counter lung. It is a flexible bag which expands when we exhale and contract when inhaling. So the total volume of the loop remains constant during the breathing cycle.

Instead of using one counter lung we are going to use a split counter lung. This means there is a breathing bag before and after the scrubber. The split design allows a longer dwell time of the air in the scrubber, increasing the ability of the lime to absorb the carbon dioxide. Only one half of the gas volume goes through the scrubber during exhalation. The other half goes through when we inhale. In the case of one counter lung all the air is forced through the scrubber bed during exhalation. Resulting in faster gas velocities and bigger volumes, reducing the reactivity of the lime.

3.6. Oxygen cylinder with constant flow mechanism

The oxygen is delivered in the rebreather as a compressed gas. See chapter 4 for more details.

3.7. Relief valve

When oxygen consumption is lower than the constant flow, the counter lung is filled to capacity and the system must vent through a relief valve. The pressure for opening the relief valve must be lower than 1.6 bar. At this pressure oxygen becomes toxic!

3.8. Manual demand valve

There is the possibility to bypass the constant flow of the oxygen when the consumption is higher than the delivered amount. This valve should be placed in a convenient place but safe enough to prevent accidental activation or damage. The right side of the rebreather at the lower end seems right.

3.9. Cooler

A lot of heat is generated in a rebreather. A way to dispose the heat is necessary. There are different ways to cool down the air. Some constructions use sealed tubes with low melting point salts like potassium phosphate hydrate. This is rather heavy and only useable till all the crystals have melted. Other designs use ice instead of salts. It has been proved that this method is not feasible for our goal. The ice provokes condensation generating more heat than the ice can take absorb by melting. another way of cooling is a heat exchanger. This with the extra help of water evaporating on the surface seems to be the way to go. This passive method can be given an extra boost by adding an extra fan forcing the evaporation of the water. See also chapter 7.

3.10. Oxygen sensors

We need to know what we breathe. This should be almost 100 % oxygen. But there will be a certain percentage of nitrogen in the gas too. This must be kept as low as possible. Nitrogen can't be absorbed by the scrubber and will accumulate in the loop till the percentage of oxygen will be to low to be breathable. This is also the reason why we purge the system before use. To aid this purging we will pull the system vacuum. Another source of nitrogen will be the gas dissolved in our blood. A certain amount of nitrogen will be freed from our blood since the partial pressure of nitrogen in the loop will be less than that in our blood.

Another gas in the loop will be CO2. Normally this gas should be absorbed by the scrubber. But there is the possibility of a breakthrough of the scrubber or that all the lime in the scrubber is depleted. 10 % CO2 in the loop means a certain death. Problem is that for the moment there is no decent (cheap) way of measuring CO2 in moist air. The only way we can check this is to be on alert for the symptoms of CO2 intoxication. Therefor we will monitor a list of different parameters of the system each five minutes. These parameters could be monitored automatically but it is better that the explorer checks the system himself. This as a self-test. If we don't succeed in this simple task due to concentration problems or fatigue then there are indeed troubles. That's also the reason why we go with two persons, to check each other with this task. The moment there are problems we have to end the exploration and return to base.

3.11. Pressure gauge

The pressure gauge is to monitor the pressure in the oxygen cylinder. The pressure gives an indication of how much oxygen we still have and is a good indication of how long we still can go.
The pressure gauge must be easily accessible. So a long flexible tube will connect the oxygen cylinder and the gauge. With a configuration like this the gauge can be attached to the chest straps.

3.12. Water traps

There are different sources of water available in a rebreather:

- The chemical reaction in the absorber produces water, roughly 157 ml of water is formed per hour!

- a lot of saliva is produced because of having the mouthpiece in the mouth. This amount will differ per individual.

- there is also a lot of evaporation of water through our lungs. What we exhale is moist air.

All this water must be kept out of the system because it can cause serious harm. Too much water in the scrubber can influence the efficienty of absorber in a bad way. another problem that can happen is the flooding of certain parts of the loop making breathing harder and hampering the good working of the system.

Throughout the rebreather temperatures goes up and down forcing the air to contain more or less water vapour. This vapour transports water through the loop. Condensation is to be expected at the coldest places of the loop. In the scrubber the temperature can rise to 100 degrees C and can indeed produce steam. What we exhale will always be 36 degrees C. The coldest point in the rebreather will be the cooler, which will have a temperature of probably 30 degrees C. So the cooler must be built as a water trap. Another water trap will be the bottom of the scrubber. This is a big device and can hold a lot of water.

Through the exhale tube saliva will dribble down and must also be collected or purged. The relief valve will be put where the saliva collects. So when the loop purges this source of water will also be disposed.


4. Human oxygen metabolism

Table of oxygen metabolism of a human (male 70 kg)

Activity
Oxygen consumed in l/min
Sleeping
Sitting
Light activity
Moderate activity
Heavy activity
Very hard exertion
1/4
1/2
1
2
3
to 5

(Source Mastering Rebreathers, Jeffrey E. Bozanic, p 83)

According to Ake Larsson (www.teknosofen.com) oxygen consumption as high as 2 L/min is rarely seen in real dives.

In the NIOSH report RI9650
“Performance Comparison of Rescue Breathing Apparatus the rebreathers are tested against:

VO2 (O2consumption) = 1.35 l/min
VCO2 (CO2production) = 1.10 l/min
Ve (ventilation) = 30 L/min
RF (respiration frequency) = 17.9 breaths/min

Tests are terminated when CO2> 10 % or O2 < 15 %

For the exploration of the Acheron an oxygen consumption of 1.1 l/min will be used. Surveying does not take much energy and can be catalogued as a light activity. Of course exploration can be moderate to heavy exertion. But we have to prevent this and do everything in a slow and relaxed way (the Jamaican way…). A temporary high oxygen demand can be catched by the extra addition through the manual demand valve. But what we have to prevent is the breakthrough of the scrubber bed. A breakthrough happens when the volume of carbon dioxide is bigger than the scrubber can take. Resulting in carbon dioxide passing through the bed, polluting the loop.


5. Oxygen cylinder

We had to find a local source of oxygen in Ja. Thanks to Jan this source was found at IGL (industrial gases ltd) Kingston.

D Size aluminium Oxygen cylinder containing 425 l of oxygen (15 cu feet)

Pressure
Length
Outer diameter
Weight
Port valve
Material
139 bar (2015 psi)
41.9 cm (16.51 in)
111 mm (4.38 in)
2.41 kg (5.3 lb)
CGA870 (CGA870 yoke)
DOT 3AA

CGA 540 port valve for bigger volumes
DOT 3AA or DOT 3AL (DOT: department of transportation)
where 3AA =  chrome molybdenum and 3AL = aluminium

Medical oxygen is shipped at a pressure of maximal 2015 psi (139 bar) for safety reasons with the special CGA870 valve.

The real volume of this bottle (when filled e.g. with water) can be derived by

Boyle's law: P1.V1 = P2.V2
pressure 1 x volume 1 = pressure 2 x volume 2, temperature must be the same


Let's say atmospheric pressure is 14.6 psi, so we get

real vol x 2015 psi = 15 cu ft x 14.6 psi
or
15 cu ft x 14.6 psi / 2015 psi = 0.11 cu ft or 3 litre

So Model D has a water capacity of 0.11 cu ft (3 l) and can contain 15 cu ft (420 l) of oxygen compressed at 2015 psi (140 bar).


If we breathe 1 cu ft/min (28 l/min) then our body will use 4 vol% of the oxygen (this is the same in air or in pure oxygen, the body takes what it needs). So we breathe out 4 vol% CO2. It's this CO2 which has to be chemical absorbed and topped with the oxygen from the tank.
So each minute 0.04 cu ft (1.1 l/min) of oxygen has to be put in the closed loop. And since we have 14.8 cu ft (420 l) we can go 14.8 cu ft / 0.04 cu ft/min = 370 minutes or more than 6 hours! This is in a perfect rebreather. A certain pressure is necessary in the interstage pressure regulator to work and deliver the constant flow of 1.1 l/min. To play on the safe side a pressure drop of 10 bar is supposed over the regulator. This gives a netto volume of 390 liters instead of 420 liters! This gives us a net time of 354 minutes or 5.9 hours, which is still in the safety limit of 5 hours as postulated in the introduction.

Since we use a constant mass flow of 1.1 liter or 0.04 cu ft it's possible some of the oxygen will be purged in moments of low activity and at moments of high activity we'll have to bypass the constant mass flow to add more oxygen in the loop. But we are still on the safe side of the requirement of a 3 hours rebreather knowing we have an 5 hours oxygen supply. And that's the way I like it. With normal diving gear we would never get this done with such a safety margin.

6. Lime

Soda lime is composed of water (16-20 %), sodium hydroxide (NaOH) or potassium hydroxide (KOH) and Calcium hydroxide (Ca(OH)2) where calcium hydroxide is the most abundant compound (70-80%). The bulkdensity is about 0.9 kg/l

Commercial Soda lime a specially prepared mixture of calcium and sodium hydroxides. The granules are creamy white in color, hard and processed to minimise dust formation. It is also porous, and irregularly shaped to provide for a larger surface area.

When put in contact with a acidic gas like CO2, a strong, exothermic (heat producing) reaction takes place which gives off water and binds the CO2 by forming a stable Calcium Carbonate.  When binding to other acidic gases, other calcium or sodium salts are formed. Sometimes a color indicator is added which aids in indicating the useful life of product.  As the soda lime becomes less effective at binding CO2, the color of the product changes to a violet color. This color change should not be your sole method of determining when to replace your absorbant, but it is an indication of use.

Commercial products are e.g.: Sofnolime (Molecular Products ltd), SodaSorb (W.R. Grace & Co.), Divesorb (Drager)

6.1. Reaction

The general description of the reaction is as follows: First the gaseous CO2 reacts with water to form carbonic acid - H2CO3. Then the NaOH reacts with the carbonic acid to produce Na2CO2 and H2O. The Na2CO2 reacts with the Ca(OH)2 which has been disassociated into Calcium and Hydroxide Ions. (Ca++ and OH-) to produce CaCO3 (calcium carbonate, otherwise known as limestone.) The CO2 is now in a relatively stable state. There is a net production of three H2O molecules for every molecule of CO2 which is taken in.

Here is the reaction in more detail.
The carbon dioxide first reacts with the moisture in the soda lime to form carbonic acid: CO2+H2O-> H2CO3(-19.36 kJ/mol)
The carbonic acid then reacts with the sodium and potassium hydroxides to form sodium and potassium carbonate and regenerate water (neutralisation reaction)

2H2CO3+NaOH+2KOH -> Na2CO3+K2CO3+4H2O (-89.4 kJ/mol)

The caustic alkalis draw the acid gas out of the passing mixture and hold it. The sodium and potassium carbonates then react with the hydrated lime, forming the unsoluble calcium carbonate and regenerating sodium hydroxide and potassium hydroxide

Na2CO3+K2CO3+2CA(OH)2-> 2CaCO3+2NaOH+2KOH (+12.3 kJ/mol)

each mole of absorbed CO2 (44g) will produces three mole of water (54 g)

1 mole of carbon dioxide weights 44 g and has a volume of 22.4 l at atmospheric pressure.

1 l of CO2 weights 1.97 g

1.1 l/min of oxygen is added to the loop which is converted by our metabolism in CO2, giving 1.1 l/min x 60 min/h / 22.4 l/mol = 2.9 mol/h

2.9 mol CO2/h x 3 mol H2O/mol CO2= 8.7 mol H2O/h

8.7 mol H2O/h x 18 g H2O/mol H2O = 156.6 g H20 = 156.6 ml H2O

about 157 ml of water is formed/hour through the chemical reactions of CO2 absorbtion.

6.2. Which mesh size to use?

4-8 grade (granule size of 2.5 to 5 mm or .098" to .197") is the most popular for recreational dives. The 8-12 (1.0 to 2.5 mm or .039" to .098") will last about 1.3 to 1.5 times longer then 4-8 given the same dives. If you are doing extreme dives you probably want the 8-12, if you are paddling around on reefs, the 4-8 will do just fine.


7. Designing a Cooler

Two sources of heat are available in a rebreather:

  • Our own body heat. A rebreather is a closed system, so we breathe our own recycled air. The temperature inside the rebreather will rise to 36 °C (96.8 °F) without any other input of heath.
  • The chemical absorption in the scrubber of the expired carbon dioxide is highly exothermic. This can heat the air in the loop to temperatures higher than 80°C (176 °F), making it impossible to breathe.

As tested by myself (on June 30 2008) air hotter than 50 °C (122 °F) is unbearable. So the air in the rebreather must be cooled to a temperature were we can do the job as comfortable as possible.

Normally, in a rebreather there is no direct source of cooling available. But if the system was used during diving then a substantial amount of cooling would be delivered by the surrounding water. But since we are using the rebreather in the hot moist air of a Jamaican cave no cooling power can be suspected from our environment.

So we have to add a cooler. The first design was using ice as demonstrated in the professional rescue breathing apparatus by Drager, the BG4. In this machine a 1.2 kg (2.65 lbs) block of ice sealed in a plastic container is used. Test conducted by me on 30 June 2008 proved that this is a bad system. One of the weak points is that the cooling ice invokes condensation of the moist air inside the rebreather. Condensation of water vapor releases almost 7 times more heat than the heat needed to melt the same amount of ice. So most of the cooling power is wasted in condensating water. A second drawback is that 1.2 kg (2.65 lbs) of ice can only absorb a limited amount of heat till it is all melted and the water has the same temperature of the inside air of the rebreather. This means that the cooling power is finite in time ( Heat of fusion of ice 335 J/g, Heat of vaporization of water 2260 J/g).

Only reason I see why they use ice in the BG4 is the psychological factor. Something like: it’s ice so it cools the best. And the machine is from Drager and it costs a fortune so it must be good.

On 3 July I did test with another type of cooler. The air was send through a 3 meter (9.8 ft) long copper tube covered with a wet cloth. This setup of passive cooler was impressive. The cooling power was 30 °C (86°F) between both ends of the tube and the system did not need any extra power to cool. Extra ventilation to stimulate the evaporation of the water in the cloth gave an extra boost of 5 to 10 °C.

The construction of a copper spiral was not very practical and after several trails (wasting some meters of good copper tubing) and other design was necessary. The final design is a long thin walled plastic tube which worked remarkably well.

8. Cleaning the rebreather

All parts of the breathing loop should be disinfected (except the scrubber). There are different brands of disinfectant like poloxamer-iodine (Wescodyne), Virkon S or RelyOn MDC (Dupont), but povidone-iodine (10%) (Betadine) can also be used.


9. Purging the rebreather before use

A rebreather has to be purged before use. Otherwise a large volume of inert gas (N2) can cause low oxygen levels leading to hypoxia (lack of oxygen).

The system has to be purged by repetitively inhaling all the gas in the loop through the mouthpiece and exhaling through the nose. Do not inhale from the ambient atmosphere during this procedure. Once the loop is as empty as possible, the loop has to be refilled with oxygen from the supply cylinder. Repeat this three times without removing the mouthpiece. Once this is done the unit ready to use.

Also if you take a breath of air, for example to speak to someone, you will have filled your lungs with a quantity of nitrogen. Before resuming use of the rebreather, you must purge your lungs of the inert gas by repetitively inhaling from the rebreather and exhaling through your nose. If you exhale into the rebreather without doing this, you will add inert gas to the system, creating the potential of hypoxia.


top


  THE EXPLORATION OF THE ACHERON


By Guy Van Rentergem,  2009 ©

Transporting and assembly of the rebreathers

Logistics for the rebreathers was something on its own. No high pressure gasses are allowed on airplanes. So a source of oxygen had to be found in Jamaica. Another problem was the absorber for the carbon dioxide. The scrubbers were build to contain 5.5 kg absorber each. So we needed minimal 11 kg absorber. Even when this product would have been allowed on the plane, bringing all these extra kilos would have been costly. Luckily all these logistic nightmares were wonderfully handled by Jan for whom I'm very grateful.

assembling the rebreathersThe assembled rebreathers are rather bulky and couldn’t be put in the luggage like that. So the rebreathers were disassembled in lose parts and stowed away in the scrubber and in the counter lungs protective case. The frame itself was easily put in the luggage. The rebreathers were also disassembled because of the extra questions we could expect at the customs. To be honest when assembled they look like some sort of a doomsday machine.

Once we were in Jamaica each rebreather was assembled in less than 2 hours. They were tested by submerging in the swimming pool and pressurize them. Only one minor leak was detected at one of the mouthpieces which was easily fixed. Also the over pressure valves were tested like this and did their work well.

Carrying the rebreathers into St Clair

It's Wednesday 18 March 2009 and we are standing at the entrance of St Clair Cave. The walk to the cave was easier than last time. There is a new track which is a shortcut over a hill. This is a relieve in comparison with the old trail which followed the boulder covered dry Black River bedding. Today the team counts six people: Stef, Jan, Andrew, Douglas, Kurt and me. The goal is to carry both rebreathers and all the extra gear as far as possible into the St Clair Cave.

An oxygen sensor is calibrated at the entrance at 20.9 % oxygen. Then we descend into the cave with all our gear. In no time we are in the Junction Room at the entrance of the Inferno. To my surprise the oxygen level here is still 20.9 % at a temperature of 25 degrees Celcius. To enter the Inferno we have to wade through relative deep water. After the big rock, which guards the Inferno as a sentinel, the oxygen level starts to drop. The further we go into this gallery the more bats we see. There are thousands and thousands of bats hanging in thick packs at the ceiling. The sound of this massive amount of animals is more than impressive. From time to time we wade through hip high murky guano infested water with floating dead bats and everywhere we place our hands and feet there are the ever present cockroaches. Their number must be in the millions. The temperature rises more than six degrees Celcius while traversing this hell. When we reach the end of the Inferno the oxygen level has dropped to 15.6 %. So we can assume there is 5.3 % carbon dioxide in the air! And indeed we all feel the poisoning effects of the carbon dioxide. Our breathing is very rapid and carrying our load (for me this is a 17 kg rebreather, a bag with survey gear and a camera) is becoming a burden.

At the end of the Inferno we have to climb a perilous steep slope covered with a very thick layer of guano. This is followed by a 4 meter drop with muck covered rocks. The passage continues through a small horizontal crevice where at last a wider passage is reached, we are in the Inferno+. The rebreathers get some serious beating pulling and pushing them through these boulders. I hope they are still OK. Once in the Inferno+ I check the air again and read 14.4 % oxygen! This means there is more than 6.5 % carbon dioxide, too much to be good if you ask me. With a lot of effort and gasping after air we finally reach the entrance of the Limbo chamber. The oxygen level stays at 14.4 %.

This low oxygen level is a real setback for us. During the discovery of the Acheron in 2006 the air was breathable just into the entrance of the Acheron. Now the bad air begins much earlier and in fact contaminates the complete Inferno+! This means we will have to strap on our rebreathers much earlier than planed and we will have to crawl through some very restrictive passages in the Limbo before reaching the Acheron. I wonder how this is going to work...

polly ground: at Maria's barBut today it has been enough for us. We are all exhausted and really want to get out of this cave as fast as possible. We drop the rebreathers and other stuff on the slope leading to the Limbo and start our retreat out of this cave. Without the heavy load this goes easier than expected and we pass quickly through the boulders marking the passage between the Inferno and Inferno+. The further we get out of the Inferno the better the air gets and at last we are breathing normal air again. The heavy exhaustion we had in the Inferno+ is only a bad memory and after some Red Stripes we are ready for tomorrow to begin the exploration of the Acheron.

Exploring the Acheron with the rebreathers

Next day we go back to where we left the rebreathers. Today the team counts 5 people. Yesterday Douglas had to go back to Kingston. I mount the regulators on the rebreathers and do a thorough checkup, they seem to be OK. To get into the Limbo an awkward climb has to be made. This can't be done with the rebreathers. So we climb without them into the Limbo and the rebreathers are hoisted up the ledge. Here we put the rebreathers on our back and open the oxygen valve. We set the oxygen flow to 1 liter/minute. The oxygen hisses and fills the counter lungs. Kurt and I put the mouthpieces in our mouths and breathe pure oxygen. We try to get through this chaotic chamber by following the left wall. But there are some very narrow passages between some huge rocks and as expected we soon are stuck and have to retreat. The rebreathers are too big! After careful consideration, Kurt and I decide to risk it and go through the small passages without the rebreathers and pull them through with the help of the others. Easier said than done but at last we are at the other side of these damned blocks and mount again our rebreathers. Here I want to say that Andrew was a real star. Without his help and courage we wouldn't have managed to pull the rebreathers through the Limbo. Thanks Andrew!

Guy in the passage leading to The ArchA last farewell to Andrew, and Kurt and I are on our own. The oxygen level in this place is 14 %. We leave the rocks behind and continue our journey downhill on a sandy slope. At last we reach the low Arch before the Acheron. The oxygen level here is only 11.1 %. Very strange but we still see some bats flying around. How they can sustain this foul air is a mystery to me.

We slip under the Arch and are entering the Acheron. At once the oxygen level tumbles to 7.9 %! Here we are standing in a natural sewer collecting the waste water of the Worthy Park sugar factory in Lluidas Vale. The composition of sewer gas includes: nitrogen, hydrogen sulfide, carbon dioxide, methane, ammonia, water vapor. No bats or cockroaches are seen. One thing is sure, one breath of this foul mixture and we are dead!

A kind of primitive fear creeps into my mind. If something goes wrong we die. No one can hear us and no one will rescue us. We are on our own. And of all my duties I wanted to do, like surveying, filming, photographing, exploring... only one is left. Staying alive and getting out of this Hell Hole! We are now completely dependant on the rebreathers. The things I designed and build my self. Where did I get the nerve for doing this...? Am I mad or so? What am I doing here? Why am I taking Kurt into this shit hole? These are some of the thoughts which flash through my mind. But the rebreathers do their work magnificently, even after the severe beating they already got. We descend into the Acheron and concentrate on breathing and staying alive.

We search our way through a chaotic riverbed with very sharp rocks. This 3-4 meter wide river is at some place knee deep and I feel the force of the water. I can barely keep my balance. And then we reach a black pool of water stretching into the glooming dark. This is a bit too much for me. The idea of going into that dark stinking water with the rebreather is beyond my state of mind now. Yes it stinks! We don't use the nose clips (because we didn't find them back at the Limbo...) and sometimes a waft of this foul mixture enters our nose. And be sure, it smells! A massive sewer stench. We really don't need the uncomfortable nose clips to remind us to breathe through our mouth.

Here at beginning of this black pool at my right side there is a passage going up with white sand. It looks like the passage to the Arch. Possible it continues but I don't find the force anymore to explore it. I want to get out of here as quick as possible, out, out, OUT... A quick glance at my buddy tells enough and we both turn around and begin our dreadful journey back to the sun. The sandy slope just behind the Arch is incredible. We find no grip on this steep lose sands and it looks like we are trapped here for ever. With a mighty swoop to the left I manage to get over this obstacle. This makes me completely breathless and it takes some time to get my wits back. I only concentrate on my breathing and hear the constant hissing of the oxygen supply and the Darth Vader like sounds from the air rushing through the hoses and counter lungs. Kurt seems to be in the same state like me. After some minutes (our hours?) we find back our strength and continue the climb to the Limbo. I really don't want to repeat our ordeal crawling through these massive Kurt sucking airblocks with a rebreather in my neck. The moment I see the oxygen level at 14 % I pull out the mouthpiece and take of the rebreather. This surprises Kurt. But since I don't fall dead he does the same.

A blast of the air horn warns the others we are still alive. We scramble through the fissures in the Limbo and then my waist strap of the rebreather tears apart. For crying out loud! Luckily this didn't happen earlier. This won’t make things any easier for me. And I can assure you it was extreme hard. But first back again to the Limbo. Man, I was so happy to see Stef, Jan and Andrew again. And they all seem to be in relative good shape too. Although we have done the Acheron I'm sure they have had their part of the misery. Waiting hours till those two madmen return, if they ever return... This in an area with more than six percent carbon dioxide and full with cockroaches. It wasn't exactly sitting at a café with some cool Red Stripes…

Now we have to get out all the gear with five persons instead of the six we had yesterday. Everyone take their fair deal and off we start to the surface. But we still have to crawl through the breakdown between the Inferno+ and Inferno. And I can tell you it was horrendous. Exhausted as we are it takes ages to find our breath back after each maneuver. Sometimes we are sitting for minutes just panting like a dog before our will returns to tackle the next obstacle. But somehow we manage to advance slowly further till we are all in the Inferno again. We just sit down in the deep shit and let us slide down the steep slope. Here the air quality gets a bit better again and slowly the further we leave behind the Inferno+ the stronger we get again. After I don't know how long we are all standing again at the entrance of the Inferno in the Junction Room, breathing normal air again. Everyone looks dead beat but somehow we are all happy and proud on what we have accomplished.

When we leave the cave it is still day. Luckily it is cloudy. The sun would have grilled us walking up the hill again. But she isn't out. So the temperature is nice and we all reach Maria's bar in good form. After quaffing a certain amounts of Red Stripe and peeling of our dirty clothes and some elementary washing we all climb in Jan's Landrover at dusk. We drive back to Kingston to get some rest and prepare the rest of the expedition.

Afterthoughts

My first thought clambering out of this hell hole was never again! But since I've been fed well and drank enough Red Stripes the idea of going back is taking the upper hand again. Never say never again...

The rebreathers did work wonderfully well but need some rework. They are too oversized and to heavy. They should be scaled down and weigh maximum 13 kg. Also the way the internal oxygen sensor is mounted into the system should be more secure. They have the tendency to unscrew which is something which must be avoided at all cost. The manipulation of the oxygen regulator is also a point of concern. Sometimes we were so confused we didn't know anymore which way was open or close. Only when we heard the hissing becoming louder we knew we were turning the thing open.

The construction itself was caveproof. These rebreathers have been put through a very severe beating and nothing cracked or broke down. For which I am very glad.

I also want to express my deepest gratitude to all who has joined in this crazy endeavor. Thank you Stef, Jan, Andrew, Douglas and not the least my brother in crime Kurt. Without you guys it would have been impossible. Thanks!

I also have to thank Hilde and my daughters Lien and Tina for their patience with me. I know it’s not easy to live with a madman making rebreathers under one roof. Many thanks!



end point anno 2009

Our end point anno 2009

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