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Here’s Why the Navy Designed a New Diving Suit

New design spurred by a global helium shortage

(Anthony Powers/U.S. Navy)
smithsonian.com

Helium isn’t just for balloons—the gas is used in industry, science and medicine. The global helium shortage is also impacting divers—it's even pushed the U.S. Navy to design a new diving suit that cuts down on helium use.

The new suit, which was developed by Navy scientists at the Naval Surface Warfare Center in Panama City, drastically reduces the amount of helium required by underwater divers. The prototype suit was developed as part of the Navy’s Initial Response Diving project, which has the goal of helping the Navy recover objects in deep waters more quickly, intervening at depths up to 600 feet worldwide within just 36 hours.

"Divers need to breathe a mixture of compressed oxygen and an inert gas to dilute the oxygen,” reports Vice’s Ben Richmond. He notes that the increased pressure underwater can cause too much oxygen to enter a diver’s bloodstream. Helium is mixed in to the customary nitrogen-oxygen blend for deep dives, Richmond reports, to prevent blood poisoning and the bends. The current system used by the navy is known as the Fly-Away Gas System (FMGS). But FMGS, which circulates gas around its suit and vents exhalants into the sea, wastes both oxygen and helium.

The new design, which features a new helmet and rebreathing system, eliminates that waste. And the suit doesn’t just save helium—in a release, the Navy notes that it will help cut costs and save space on vessels, which could help divers to reach their destinations more quickly. That’s great news in a world where a shortage of helium could impact lives well beyond birthday parties.

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