Liquid Breathing

Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Liquid breathing is a form of respiration in which a normally air-breathing organism breathes an oxygen-rich liquid (usually a perfluorocarbon) rather than breathing air.

Liquid breathing could be used in diving as an alternative to rigid diving suits and heliox/trimix. With liquid in the lungs, the pressure within the diver's lungs could accommodate changes in the pressure of the surrounding water without the huge gas partial pressure exposures required when the lungs are filled with gas. Liquid breathing would not result in the saturation of body tissues with high pressure nitrogen or helium that occurs with the use of non-liquids, thus would reduce or remove the need for slow decompression.

A significant problem, however, arises from the high viscosity of the liquid and the corresponding reduction in its ability to remove CO2. All uses of liquid breathing for diving must involve total liquid ventilation. Total liquid ventilation, however, has difficulty moving enough liquid to carry away CO2, because no matter how great the total pressure is, the amount of partial CO2 gas pressure available to dissolve CO2 into the breathing liquid can never be much more than the pressure at which CO2 exists in the blood. Therefore, assistance from a mechanical ventilator is required.

Liquid breathing could also be used in space travel to insulate astronauts against the effects of rapid acceleration. Liquid immersion provides a way to reduce the physical stress of G forces. Forces applied to fluids are distributed as omnidirectional pressures. Because liquids cannot be practically compressed, they do not change density under high acceleration such as performed in aerial maneuvers or space travel. A person immersed in liquid of the same density as tissue has acceleration forces distributed around the body, rather than applied at a single point such as a seat or harness straps. This principle is used in a new type of G-suit called the Libelle G-suit, which allows aircraft pilots to remain conscious and functioning at more than 10 G acceleration by surrounding them with water in a rigid suit.

Acceleration protection by liquid immersion is limited by the differential density of body tissues and immersion fluid, limiting the utility of this method to about 15 to 20 G[21] Extending acceleration protection beyond 20 G requires filling the lungs with fluid of density similar to water. An astronaut totally immersed in liquid, with liquid inside all body cavities, will feel little effect from extreme G forces because the forces on a liquid are distributed equally, and in all directions simultaneously. However effects will be felt because of density differences between different body tissues, so an upper acceleration limit still exists.

Liquid breathing for acceleration protection may never be practical because of the difficulty of finding a suitable breathing medium of similar density to water that is compatible with lung tissue. Perfluorocarbon fluids are twice as dense as water, hence unsuitable for this application.