THE LIQUID THAT CAN BE BREATHED
BREATHING UNDER WATER: AN EVEN CLOSER REALITY
LOOKING FOR A NEW CHALLENGE
We must admit that humanity, in all its defects and imperfections, and we know we have many, has achieved goals that no other known living thing on Earth has ever imagined less achieved.
Things like the ability to fly have been denied to us in our evolution, but this hasn’t stopped us from conquering the sky in our steel wings, challenging the limits of speed and physics itself.
We have all been direct and indirect witnesses to colossal accomplishments such as navigation, moon landing and exploration of areas beyond the physical limit that has been granted to us.
Yet this has never proven to be an obstacle; indeed, we have been spurred on by this, as if it were a personal but also a collective challenge.
This vision of man as the animal that defeated their biological limitations, thanks to the superior intellect that allowed us to see things and the world around us with the eyes of the mind and imagination and not with those of the instinct and self-preservation, two aspects that are not necessarily negative themselves, which would have kept us safe in the natural cycle, without hoping for that “progress” that seems to delineate the human character so much.
And it is not surprising therefore that, arrived in the twenty-first century, at the height of human civilization, we are already looking for a new challenge: that of underwater breathing.
A topic that has always been very popular in movies dedicated to all these aspects where science cannot yet give an alternative, being able to actually breathe underwater has been the inspiration for fantastic ideas such as specific mutations capable of giving this ability or technology able to allow human survival in artificially controlled water areas.
But let’s go into the reasons, in human evolution. of why we cannot breathe underwater as aquatic animals are capable.
THE HUMAN ANATOMY: AN ADVANTAGE AND A LIMITATION
The difference between these animals and us should be intuitive if we consider what makes us able to reason on this concept in the beginning, which is the same thing that at this moment, is allowing you to read this ToYou article. And since I’m not talking about the Internet, the other option is the exact one: everything is thanks to our brain. that mass of “gray matter” that makes us not only aware but also sensitive to the environment, to ourselves and to others at very high levels.
Humans possess, although sometimes it would not seem, the most developed and largest brain of all.
Unfortunately, this magnificent brain ofours requires much higher oxygenation than that for the rest of the body, due to its size and the role with which it acts on the control of our body in all its parts.
And this is why animals with less brain mass, need less oxygen, and therefore are more adaptable to life in water.
In addition to the great demand for oxygen, we must also take into account the extreme sensitivity that our brain has in situations of even a slight oxygen deficiency.
This importance on the size of the brain is also the reason why whales, animals that for body size correspond to an equal amount of brain, have evolved to contain large “pockets” of air in order to dive for longer, while animals with less brain they can remain underwater for longer because they require a lower oxygen supply.
However, their apparent better ability has not proved to be so useful.
In fact, during the evolution of the species and the water-land transition, the species that adapted to amphibious life and subsequently to terrestrial life were able to develop the organ of the heart with multiple chambers to pump and redistribute greater quantities of oxygen, generating consequently more energy to be used, and this has made it possible to increase intellectual and motor skills.
So let’s say that we sacrificed the diving ability for a superior intelligence that allowed us, however, at the same time to build, conceive, design and therefore improve any area in which we were physically deficient, including underwater activities through the diving equipment etc. Not bad at all, is it?
Now, however, we want to be able to find those skills that allowed us to live in the water with the same comfort with which we go for a walk in the park.
And that’s what chemistry helps us with.
CAN WE REALLY BREATHE IN A LIQUID AS IF IT WERE AIR?
If our great need for oxygen is what prevents us from breathing normally in water, then with an oxygen-rich liquid we would have solved the riddle. But is it really possible?
To talk about this, it is necessary to make a note on the characteristic that allows a liquid to contain oxygen, that is the solubility of gas.
The solubility of gas depends among other things such as the boiling temperature and the pressure, also on the ability to generate intermolecular bonds and therefore to “bind” with the oxygen molecules, in this case.
Obviously for a liquid and a gas is more complicated that it creates a bond, unless that liquid has peculiar chemical characteristics such as to allow the solution.
Fortunately, however, there are liquids capable of being able to bind with oxygen molecules like no other liquid in the world, so as to contain enough of them to even allow us to breathe inside them: Perfluorocarbon.
PERFLUOROCARBONS: LIQUIDS WITH A THOUSAND POTENTIALITIES
The perfluorocarbons (or fluorocarbons) are a family of chemical compounds formed from carbon and fluorine as defined by the nomenclature, used for many aspects such as refrigeration, the cosmetic, ocular surgery, as chemical tracers, such as solvents and, as regards the today’s topic, for the ability to absorb large quantities of oxygen capable of keeping the human body alive.
We therefore understood that oxygen is in fact the key to achieving the ability to breathe underwater.
And perfluorodecalin in particular, can carry more oxygen and carbon dioxide than blood, three times more oxygen than air and four times as much anhydride.
The Perfluorodecalin (PFD) is a unique perfluorocarbon for its special feature of high gas dissolution, it has attracted the attention of many scientists and scholars who have carried out experiments and theories about it.
In general, it is used in medicine for effective procurement in areas where an influx of oxygen is needed for the healing of damaged tissues or areas, and always for the same reason, it is also very useful for the preservation of organs and tissues, for transplants.
But let’s talk a little more about some of the special functions that this exceptional liquid does.
The PFD AND NANOTECHNOLOGY
The innumerable uses of this perfluorinated liquid are not limited to those already listed, which are based more on the biological sector, but advance in importance in the process of organizing nanostructures.
In fact, if mixed with hydrocarbons, perfluorodecalin becomes an anti-solvent that allows to switch from nanocrystals to supercrystals, also called superlattice, an overlap of structures of different types of material, divided by a barrier of very small dimensions (nanometers) which with the “forced localizations” defined quantum wells, allow the transport and channeling of energy.
I stop here since we should enter quantum physics to explain in more detail (which I recommend for those interested in these topics to search more of it), but just know that these nanoscopic structures give improved physical capabilities and some very peculiar, otherwise not observable in other “natural” structures.
Given the enormous potential it contains, nanotechnology is often used in sci-fi movies and video games as a “justification” for the countless sci-fi potentials and power ups such as the immediate and exponential increase in strength and endurance in suits, the increase in the physical abilities of the subject, up to invisibility as in the case of Prophet and his Nanosuit in the famous videogame Crysis.
PFD or Perfluorodecalin is a colorless, clean liquid that could be easily mistaken for water.
In addition to being used as a breathable liquid, it is also used in the creation of a real artificial blood which could in fact replace “biological” blood.
The difficulty in generating blood substitute mixtures is not so much in the molecular structure itself, as these have already been recreated for some time thanks to advances in biotechnology, but in the fact that this blood can actually “transport oxygen”.
And as you may have already understood, here our perfluorodecalin comes into play, which with its exceptional ability to absorb, transport and release oxygen, was the perfect candidate to be part of the serum of life.
The first artificial blood based on PFC (PerFluoroCarbon) dates back to 1989 in Japan, called Fluosol, an emulsion of perfluorocarbon, vitamins, nutrients and antibiotics, up to the impressive number of 80 different ingredients.
The small size of the PFC particles and the effective transport of oxygen in the blood was highly appreciated in those years, but it lost interest in the expensive logistics related to its storage and its production was stopped five years later.
Others followed, one of which is still being developed and another is marketed in Russia (Perftran), all aimed at exploiting particular physico-chemical propensities of the family of “breathable” fluids, and as for breathable mixtures for diving, the “trick” lies in the recipe and in the ingredients and doses used, which can greatly vary the result.
Despite this, the improvements both in the study and in the search for “chemical” transfusions have been many, just think of how in 1600 they thought that infusions of milk, beer or even urine (yes, you read that right), could serve as substitutes for the blood, in addition to the “more normal” attempts of transfusions of animal blood and wine, without trying too hard to look for some fluid with more affinities apart from the color.
Now, let’s analyze the most interesting property of all, the one that makes it a breathing fluid.
BREATHABLE FLUIDS: INTRODUCTION
The fluids, whether they are gases or liquids, can have characteristics such as to enclose and retain large quantities of oxygen, and make breathing possible.
For liquid fluids that possess these capacities, such as perfluorocarbons, very little is known about their sectoral and ultra-specified use, but breathable gases are instead in common use now, and are found almost everywhere as in underwater diving for example,since they are no longer limited to restricted use.
Therefore, talking about the gases used for breathing will help us to understand how these breathable liquids work.
BREATHABLE FLUIDS: GAS
By breathable gas we mainly mean a gaseous body composed of oxygen as the only active component (unless the function of the aforementioned gas is of a different nature and non-respiratory, such as the anesthetizing one) and other inert components that are used for the dilution of oxygen.
And it is precisely in the mix of these dilutedcomponents that there is the potential to improve endurance capacity, reducing the risks of decompression, for example, as well as those related to the change between a breathable gas and another such as air, the only existing natural breathing gas.
The problem with these gases and their components also lies in the pressure that they are subjected, especially in the area of diving, where certain elements, if placed under a pressure greater than a permitted range, become toxic and therefore possibly fatal for those who breathe them, like nitrogen which can become narcotic under high pressure.
TYPES OF BREATHABLE GAS
Obviously it must be said that the increase in the concentration of oxygen in the breathing gas mixtures facilitates the transition, as it allows greater maneuverability and movement as there is more usable oxygen available and thus reduces the risk of feeling bad.
But as strange as it may seem, oxygen can also become toxic.
And that’s why among the breathable gases that are used for divers, pure oxygen is used only to facilitate and speed up the decompression process and therefore facilitate a faster change between the normal and underwater atmosphere for speed maneuvers.
The Nitrox, just to mention one, is a mixture of air and oxygen at a higher concentration, greater than 21% present normally in the air; the greater the amount of oxygen, the greater the chances of prolonging the dive, but only for the fact that this causes less discomfort and not because oxygen allows the human body to go “deeper”, because as we have already said there is the pressure and therefore the risk of toxicity that still remains.
Then there are other mixtures that are characterized by varying proportions of oxygen, nitrogen, hydrogen and helium, all with the aim of balancing potential toxicities and ensuring better and longer lasting performance.
Each component of noble and non-noble gases that will make up the mixture, must be carefully studied and compared, because they all have their pros and cons and that is why there are many mixtures of breathing gas used by divers and not a simple “cylinder of oxygen “as it is often represented in movies.
For example, helium is one of the noble gases that due to its chemical-physical characteristics has the lowest potential toxicity rate, but has a great probability of causing other disorders such as tremors caused by the pressure of helium in the nervous system, in addition to be more expensive than oxygen.
Another, to give the idea, and each of the noble gases has its defects and merits in these functions, is hydrogen, which is the lightest known gaseous element (from the memories of the basic chemistry maybe you will remember something about it).
One of the big problems of hydrogen is that if mixed with oxygen in higher percentages of 4/5% itcan even become explosive!
For this there are limitations in its use with regards to pressures and depth meters allowed.
We humans, like many of the living beings on this planet, need oxygen because it is the element that, if combined with carbohydrates and hydrocarbons, create CO2 and water, in a well-known chemical reaction that also and above all produces the energy that the body needs for the sustenance of organs and muscles, cellular respiration, brain functioning etc.
Oxygen passes into the red blood cells, and then goes through the process that the cartoon ” Once upon a time… Life” explains better than I do.
But the fact that this oxygen arrivals due to a gas or a liquid this is not essentially a problem, and it has never been although this is the general conception.
BREATHABLE FLUIDS: LIQUIDS
So now that we know how diluent gases work, let’s find out what makes perfluorodecalin, the breathable liquid, so different from all other normal liquids.
And it is precisely in the dilution that its exceptional characteristic is shown.
In fact, it has a high absorption capacity, 50 mL of dissolved oxygen per 100 mL of perfluorodecalin at standard pressure and temperature, which is really a lot, and therefore in a nutshell, it can contain the amount of oxygen, and even more, that the living beings need to live.
Although its ability to dissolve oxygen is at least equal to that of diluting carbon dioxide, and this is a very serious problem.
To understand how much, however, it can help us think of that feeling of drowning when we lack air or hold our breath, which is not due to the lack of oxygen as we usually think, but to the accumulation of CO2 and the result of the change of pH.
But fortunately the problem of CO2 has been “solved” so to speak, if changes are made to the recycling of thealready “saturated” liquid, replacing it with a new and “fresh” liquid full of oxygen and not CO2.
So why aren’t we already going through the submerged environments as if we were Aquaman?
COMPLICATIONS AND DIFFICULTIES
The real problem, surprisingly, exists not in being able to breathe inside the liquid, but in getting out of it.
In fact, the problem is to expel the liquid from the lungs, which being much more viscous than the gases that we usually breathe, our lungs are not adapted nor designed to “throw them away”, as we would do with normal gases.
For this reason these fluids are used for patients suffering from ARDS (an acute respiratory syndrome in adults), through partial liquid ventilation, and the liquid is artificially “sucked away” at the end of the treatment.
This becomes a convenient and even advantageous process for those critical situations in which the patient’s health is not predisposed for breathing, but it is certain that as regards the residual residues inside the lungs that are reabsorbed by the body itself, there is no studies on their effects, and for this reason there are still many questions about these techniques, because even using the instruments of the tubes for partial ventilation so as to breathe through the liquid only for the affected lung areas, there are not enough advantages to be able to advance a more widespread use and perhaps there are too many unnecessary complications to be able to carry them out normally.
And as we have commented previously, this liquid phenomenally dissolves inside it not only oxygen but above all carbon dioxide, and also much faster than the first, making it necessary to continuously change the liquid.
Not to mention that on a physical level, the entry and exit of the liquid, having a relevant viscosity, the sensation turns out to be very unpleasant and disconcerting.
Imagine the feeling of when you are drinking water and you make it enter the wrong way, but now in larger proportions and in a longer time…
HOW DOES IT FEEL TO BREATHE INSIDE THIS LIQUID
The transition from the air, which we have always been used to breathing, to immersion in this liquid, can maybe be a voluntary act of the person who undergoes the test, but certainly their body will not recognize it as such.
Our innermost instinct commands us to preserve our life, and this includes that of not exposing ourselves to liquids for a long time, as our body, in addition to being affected by the increase in CO2 in the blood, triggers instinctive alarm signals to prevent us from that phenomenon known as drowning.
However, if, despite this instinct, the person managed to endure this feeling of anxiety by suffocation (which I am sure is not an easy thing), it would theoretically reach a state in which the body stops reacting negatively to the surrounding environment and start adapting to it. At that precise moment, one could therefore begin to appreciate the fact of being submerged in the liquid without remaining in apnea and without technically “feeling” the need to breathe air, aka oxygen.
But as we have said, the use of an intubation that allows the exit of the liquid saturated with CO2 and the entry of the new one, in a constant and fast way such as to allow the exchange of oxygen with the body, is inevitable. Which adds another level of discomfort to the person, if conscious.
The final transition from liquid to air turns out to be just as complex as the initial one, and given these serious complications, many have defined this liquid a modern torture.
In fact, perfluorocarbon could become “useful”, not only in underwater breathing, but as a sophisticated instrument of torture, because the sensations are mostly identical to those of a real drowning, and the transition from liquid to air is very upsetting, difficult and fatiguing, capable of wearing down anyone.
In fact, in order to dive in perfluorodecalin, due to the density of this liquid, to take it out it would take a lot of physical energy, and to move at the same time and carry out a strenuous activity such as diving, it is almost impossible to achieve them in a prolonged period of time.
MODERN SOLUTIONS AND APPLICATIONS
The fact that there are complications does not mean that these cannot be overcome with techniques aimed at solving the various phases and improving the transition from liquid to air, which is the main problem.
In fact, it is ascertained that, for small animals and for premature infants with underdeveloped lungs, and with particular ventilation and pumping equipment, perfluorocarbon can be convenient and advantageous to be able to reach oxygen, by appropriately removing CO2 from the blood.
The technique used to do this is that carried out with a special tube inserted in the trachea, which carries out the phase of passage and pumping of the liquid at the output and input very quickly to allow oxygenation and at the same time the removal of carbon dioxide.
These provisions have proven effective in pediatric cases linked to premature births, infants with major lung deficiencies and/or serious respiratory trauma that are difficult to treat, and not only, but also in adult patients with trauma of cardiac and pulmonary origin, especially in intensive cases this type of treatment is carried out, or in situations where the lungs are damaged considerably and therefore the use of more traditional treatments is difficult.
The process is defined as liquid ventilation, which can be complete if the lungs of patients with respiratory problems are flooded entirely with this breathable and oxygen-rich liquid, always using recycling for the problem of CO2 saturation, even if it is actually the partial liquid ventilation theone most used nowadays as a treatment procedure for infants and adults.
THEORIES AND FINAL CONJECTURES
The truth is that this topic is far from complete and well-researched as it should be, given the potential of scientific and social interest it possesses.
However, it is important to note that a real “aquatic cohesion” as we all would like is not yet possible.
This is because unlike fish for example, our alveoli and capillaries through which oxygen and carbon dioxide pass are located in the lungs, and therefore very much inside our body, and for our evolution as terrestrial, the adaptation has made us much stronger in land, but we have inevitably lost and regressed some of the characteristics that allowed aquatic life.
And since the fluorocarbon liquid is denser than air, the human lungs and the physiognomy of which we are composed are not supported to move the fluid out of our body, simply because anatomically we do not have the strength.
In addition, the gills of the fish, being placed in the superficial part of their body, allow them a quick and inexpensive passage of the water and a very effective and efficacious filtering.
So, unless we become like Kevin Costner in Waterworld (1995) and develop the gills too, it is complicated that with our weak lungs we can sail the seas like our Atlantean Aquaman.
Of course, a mutation of several generations (and of course we are talking about millions of years for drastic changes like this one, so don’t expect the gills next Monday) for environmental reasons it would be possible “theoretically”, if only we could keep ourselves in an aquatic environment enough to induce the mutagenic factor.
But even if we managed to develop the gills and somehow replace them to the lungs as a method of breathing, surely this would lead us to no longer be able to sustain life on earth given the suspension of gravity in water and the adaptation that derives from it. And then this would lead us to be all fish men like the creature of Guillermo del Toro’s The Shape of Water (2017).
A combination of the two breathing methods, such as to be able to “interchange” when necessary, would be the perfect solution, don’t you think?
Comment in the section below what you think of all this, and if you would ever try to immerse yourself in a tank full of perfluorocarbon!
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