What you need to know about Helium
(a supplement for techdiverTraining Helitrox divers)
As a Helitrox Decompression Diver, there are a few things you should know about helium, this new gas you can now add to your scuba tanks, since your TDI decompression procedures textbook does not cover this topic at all. Luckily, the vital stuff – the things you need to know to help keep you happy – can be summed up in a couple of pages. Please read on!
We can start off by looking at some of helium’s properties.
Anyone who has organized a kid’s birthday party and bought party balloons already knows helium gas is lighter than air: it’s actually many times lighter than air. For those with an interest in these things, a mole of helium has a mass of 4 grams compared to 32 grams for the same quantity of oxygen and 28 grams for the same amount of nitrogen.
Just in case you forget your high-school science, a mole is measurement of quantity – a specific number of elemental particles or molecules – used in chemistry. For example, a mole of Ideal Gas has a volume of close to 22.4 litres at STP (Standard Temperature and Pressure – 0 degrees Celsius, and one atmosphere or 101.2 kPa). An ideal gas is defined as a hypothetical gas in which all collisions between atoms and/or molecules are perfectly elastic and in which there are no intermolecular attractive forces. This is unrealistic behavior for a gas but we use it in diving because diving is not an exact science. In the context of diving, we can say that 22 litres of helium weighs 4 grams compared to around 29 grams for 22 litres of air.
Is any of this really vital to you as a Helitrox Decompression Diver? Nah, not really. However, it does help to show us why a cylinder filled with trimix, has buoyancy characteristics that are different to the same cylinder filled with air or oxygen: it has a tendency to float, the oxygen cylinder does not.
One other issue that relates directly to the mass of helium is work of breathing (WOB). The deeper we dive, the denser our breathing gas becomes and pulling a lung-full of gas into our body requires more work and effort. Using air or nitrox, you may have already noticed that your regulator – which performs perfectly at 20 or 30 metres – starts to feel a little “tighter” as you venture past 40 metres (132 feet). The WOB, even on a well-adjusted, high-performance regulator, increases noticeably as we descend deeper than 60 metres (200 feet). This increased workload can play a major role in carbon dioxide build-up in a diver’s blood, which of course affects respiratory function.
In short, gas density affects a diver’s comfort, safety and performance. Adding helium to our bottom gas effectively thins out that gas making it easier to breathe at depth. With 20 percent helium in your back gas, you may notice your regs have never breathed easier!
Back to our high-school chemistry for a moment: Helium is a member of a handful of elements known as Noble Gases. The term “noble” probably comes from the fact that these gases have their outer electron shell completely filled, and this makes them (Helium, Neon, Argon, Krypton, Xenon, and Radon) “aloof” and in most circumstance, nonreactive or inert. Noble gases do not bond with other elements. Helium is pretty typical in that it does not burn, does not mix with other substances to form stable compounds, and – as with its noble gas bunkmates – is monoatomic; in other words, it does not even like to associate with itself and hence we write ‘He’ and not ‘He2‘ as we do with O2 and N2. The behavior of helium as a Noble Gas is only a concern to us as divers when we need to make exact calculations to mix gases accurately. Coles Notes version: for a given pressure and temperature, one gets less He in a scuba cylinder (fewer moles) than air or oxygen (i.e. 200 bar of helium is NOT the same as 200 bar of oxygen).
OK, so notwithstanding the all of the points outlined above, one basic question remains: Why do we use helium? I am not trivializing the importance of floaty bottles, lessened WOB at depth and how many moles we can cram into an aluminum “80”, but what else is there to know?
Probably number one is that helium is – for the purposes of diving at depths attained by recreational technical divers – biologically inert. Since it is not narcotic and non-toxic, it makes a great diluent for nitrogen and for oxygen. Adding helium to keep the partial pressures of both those gases to manageable levels is the real reason for this course. Your classroom notes should include the basic “Dalton’s Law” calculations for the suggested bottom-gas mix to be used on the pinnacle dive for this course… a 30 minute exposure at 45 metres (150 feet).
Just in case you do not have those notes handy, here is the short-form:
Ambient pressure at depth of 45 metres = 5.5 bar
Target Oxygen Partial Pressure at depth = 1.30 bar
Target Nitrogen Partial Pressure at depth = 3.16 bar (same as air at 30 metres)
Vacant partial pressure (Ambient – (O2 + N2) = 5.5 – (1.3 + 3.16) = 5.5 – 4.46 = 1.04
So, we have to fill 1.04 bar with something other than oxygen or nitrogen to keep the levels of those two gases within a tolerable range. Easy, we can use helium because it is a “diver-friendly” gas.
Now, at some point, we have to let someone at a dive shop know what flavor of trimix (or Helitrox) we want them to mix, and so we need to convert partial pressures in bar to a percentage of the ambient pressure. In other words, we need to calculate the ratios of each of the gases used.
Here are those calculations: 1.3/5.5 x 100 = 23.6% Oxygen; 1.04/5.5 x 100 = 18.9% Helium; 3.16/5.5 x 100 = 57.4% Nitrogen (rounded numbers which do not quite add up to 100%).
I am not sure what the folks are like where you buy your fills, but I could not bring myself to ask my supplier for a mix with fractions such as 23.6 or 18.9. It makes more sense to round the numbers up to whole numbers, let’s say a 23/20, and that is what I would dive. For the record, TDI suggests the mix for this class at this depth cannot exceed a 25/20. I cut back on the oxygen pressure just a little because I believe it better suits the water conditions where I do most of my diving.
OK, just two more small issues to deal with. The first is perhaps the biggest myth surrounding dives using trimix. The myth is that ANY mix with helium is going to give a diver a much longer decompression obligation that diving air. This is patent bullshit. I simply cannot categorize it any other way.
Helium is said to have faster transit times than nitrogen in a diver’s body; it is absorbed and eliminated more rapidly than nitrogen. This does result in ascent schedules with a slightly deeper off-gassing ceiling, calling for running stops beginning deeper in the water column, but overall ascent times are shorter NOT longer. Here is an example that’s relevant to the type of diving you will do as part of the graduation requirements to earn certification.
A dive to 45 metres for 30 minutes breathing a 23/20 trimix and a EAN50 starting at 21 metres on the way up. Total runtime = 63 minutes.
Exactly the same parameters for the dive but substituting air for the trimix on the bottom and keeping the EAN50 deco gas for the ascent. Total runtime = 74 minutes!
OK, so perhaps there’s a difference because the trimix has 23% oxygen and air only has 21%. Here the same dive with an EAN23 instead of trimix and all the other stuff the same. Total runtime = 71 minutes.
No matter how you cut it, the ascent time on trimix is shorter. (By the way, the first running stop on the trimix ascent IS deeper by about three metres.)
OK, so with that myth busted, let’s move on. The final item is thermal stress and the role of helium in hyperthermia. Helium does a poor job of insulation and pure helium would make a very bad inflation gas for a diver’s drysuit. I have dived in a cave in 20-21 degree water using pure helium in my suit. It was not a wonderful experience: I strongly suggest you do not try it for yourself.
TDI suggests using an alternative suit inflation system to one’s back-gas when ANY helium is being used. This is a great idea if you are diving in an area with a marked thermocline; however, many divers diving in water 20 degrees and above, find very little thermal effect when using a gas with only a moderate amount of helium in it. During this course, you should not have more than one-fifth of your back-gas given over to helium. You may find it unnecessary to carry a separate drysuit inflation system in moderate to warm water conditions.
Oh, one last thing, sound travels about four times faster in helium than in air. One result of breathing helium is that it makes one’s voice sound like Donald Duck or Minnie Mouse. This Disney effect is really funny. However, be aware that pure helium or helium mixes that do not contain at least 21 percent oxygen, are dangerous and breathing them may result in hypoxia and death or serious brain damage. Keep helium away from kids!
Thanks for your attention.