Phil Nuytten isn’t Tony Stark — the Hollywood movie character who invents the “Iron Man” suit — but why would he want to be? For deep sea divers, Nuytten is already a star.
As a teen, Nuytten showed rare talent when he started designing his first diving gear. By 1985 he had designed the Newtsuit, a sea diving suit so groundbreaking that it was adopted by NASA and the U.S. military. Nuytten’s company also built a submarine escape system for the U.S. Navy.
Then Nuytten created the Exosuit.
“It’s kind of like ‘Ironman’ come to life,” Nuytten told CNN recently from his company’s research facility in Vancouver, British Columbia. The suit has thrusters like the superhero character. But instead of soaring through the air, sea divers use these thrusters to “fly” through the water. The thrusters are propelled by water jets, each packing 1.6 horsepower.
Think about what it must be like to work in a 530-pound aluminum-alloy suit 1,000 feet under water.
It’s very cold and basically dark.
At that depth, it’s too far for any significant sunlight to penetrate.
The pressure of 500 pounds per square inch is pressing all around your body. But the exterior of a very strong diving suit protects your body from being crushed. LED lights built into the Exosuit help you see what you’re working on.
Avoiding the bends
These kinds of special suits — which maintain internal pressure in deep water equal to the pressure on the surface — are called atmospheric diving suits, or ADS. They’re aimed at undersea oil rig workers, salvage experts or scientists exploring the ocean floor.
Over the past century, atmospheric diving suits have been developed and improved in hopes of preventing the dangerous effects of decompression sickness, aka the bends.
Divers get the bends from moving too fast from a high-pressure environment to a normal pressure environment. The rapid change can release nitrogen gas bubbles into the bloodstream, damaging blood vessels, blocking blood flow and triggering joint pain.
Exosuits and undersea mineral farms
Nuytten, now in his mid-70s, has had his Hollywood moments. He served as underwater technical director on the 1989 James Cameron film “The Abyss,” for which he built two submarines and designed diving helmets. He also worked on Cameron’s Academy Award-winning “Titanic.”
He has expressed hope that his Exosuit will help spur development of human underwater habitats.
Nuytten told Toronto newspaper The Globe and Mail he’d like to see Exosuits one day used by workers to harvest valuable minerals from the ocean floor. He suggested the construction of an experimental undersea habitat off Vancouver that would be home to these ocean miners.
He called it Vent Base Alpha.
Who knows? Perhaps Nuytten’s onto something. Maybe it won’t be long before the undersea farmers of Vent Base Alpha will be using their Exosuits to harvest minerals.
As he told The Globe and Mail, “If you don’t dream, you never get there.”