U.S. Water News Online
Mimics fish breathing: Membrane mask draws oxygen from water
WALLTHAM, Mass. -- An American company is working on a set
of artificial gills that could allow people to swim underwater for
The early stage technology is meant to mimic the gill systems of
fish. It would use a silicon-based polymer membrane mask to harvest
oxygen from the water.
"You wouldn't have gills on the side of your neck or anything like
that," said Michael Cushman, the engineer at Waltham, Mass.-based
Infoscitex. The engineering company is creating the system along with
Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio.
Fish gills process huge volumes of water efficiently, taking in
oxygen through their feathery lamallae or filaments.
"Almost every element of the lamellae gets exposed to water, so
the contact is phenomenal," says Harihara Baskaran, assistant
professor in the departments of chemical engineering and biomedical
engineering at Case Western, who is working on the artificial gills.
Like fish gills, the Infoscitex membrane would maximize the
contact area to pull as much oxygen as possible from the water.
The oxygen would then be pumped through a gas line regulated by a
person's breathing into a storage bladder.
"You're going to have to basically pulse with your breath to drive
the oxygen into a storage area," Mr. Cushman said. "There'd be some
similarities with scuba gear, but there wouldn't be tanks involved."
This would give divers using the artificial gill system much
greater mobility than those using heavy oxygen tanks.
Cooper Langford, co-ordinator of the science, technology and
society program at the University of Calgary's Institute of Military
and Strategic Studies, said such a device would be a boon during
civilian search and rescue missions.
Such rescues often take place within relatively shallow rivers and
lakes, but can present divers with the challenge of being able to
stay down long enough to accomplish their work.
Mr. Langford was less convinced of the device's application for
the Canadian military.
"I don't somehow imagine we're too heavily engaged in what one
hears about in the thrillers about the U.S. Navy Seals."
While other artificial gills have been created using mechanical
pumps, Infoscitex's technology is the first to use biomimicry, a
relatively new science that studies nature's models and then imitates
them. Mr. Cushman said they aren't modelling the artificial gills on
any single fish, but rather on the basic gill system.
Applications would be for the military as well as for recreational
scuba divers. The system isn't expected to reach market for eight to
The gills are just one of the many futuristic technologies the
U.S. military is funding through its Small Business Technology
Transfer awards. The awards originated in 1994 as a pilot project and
now extend through to 2009. Successful two-year contracts can provide
as much as US$750,000 to a company for research and development.
Some of the other technologies the military has awarded money for
include new devices to detect chemical and biological warfare agents,
and wireless, wearable mesh computer networks.
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