Into the Abyss in the Name of Science
Rhode Islander to wear million-dollar Iron Man suit to go deep-sea diving
March 17, 2014
Space is not the final frontier. Sorry, Capt. Kirk. This summer, some 100 miles off the coast of Rhode Island, Michael Lombardi will descend into an abyss that has hosted fewer visitors than the moon.
The East Providence resident will be going where no man has gone before — at least not in the swimsuit he will be sporting. Lombardi, a professional diver with 15 years of experience, will spend three to five hours underwater, at a depth of some 1,000 feet, in a diving suit that allows humans to access places where bioluminescent fish and strange creatures lurk in the darkness.
The Exosuit — a 530-pound, 6.5-foot atmospheric diving system made of cast aluminum alloy — allows for ocean exploration up to three football fields deep without a diver succumbing to the intense pressure or having to spend hours decompressing to avoid the deadly bends. The $1.3 million suit features 1.6-horsepower foot-controlled thrusters and 18 rotary joints in the arms and legs to provide a freedom of movement impossible in even the most nimble submersible.
It’s also, at the moment, the only one of its kind. Lombardi is one of about 10 people who have actually taken the suit for a swim. Training in May at Woods Hole for July’s weeklong stay at “The Canyons” will be the first time the suit will be used outside of a testing pool.
The Rhode Island-born Lombardi, while excited about the opportunity to be the lead Exosuit pilot and the dive project’s coordinator, wishes the Ocean State was playing a role in this scientific adventure.
“The deep ocean is a huge frontier that has largely been unexplored,” the 34-year-old said. “It needs to be explored to identify how that environment can benefit human health. There are new medicines and natural resources down there that, if engineered and harvested correctly and sustainably, could lead to astonishing discoveries.”
Lombardi believes Rhode Island could be the U.S. hub for ocean exploration, much like Florida is for the country’s space program. Instead, during this summer’s deep-sea exploration, the first of its kind in 35 years, Rhode Island will be left watching from the shore — despite invitations to be directly involved.
A Massachusetts-based company, J.F. White Contracting Co., is lending its expensive suit for this scientific mission. The University of Connecticut is providing its research vessel, the RV Connecticut, for the mission. The expedition’s chief scientist is from Yale University. The American Museum of Natural History in New York City recently put the suit on display for a week, attracting crowds and international attention.
Lombardi sees Rhode Island, home to Naval Station Newport, Quonset Point, a well-known marine trades industry and respected academic institutions, as the ideal place to build a NASA-like structure around the commercial and scientific exploration of the deep ocean.
“Ocean exploration is a huge door that will soon be opened, and what better place than the Ocean State to lead the way,” he said.
In 2012, Lombardi took a step in that direction, when he established the Middletown-based Undersea Resource Center. The facility emphasizes “advancement in placing humans beneath the sea.” The not-for-profit facility provides a place to incubate a variety of projects and programs in cooperation with partners in academia, industry and the private sector. Lombardi also maintains a blog devoted to the exploration of the sea.
Researchers and scientists have long believed that deep-sea creatures and chemical compounds could help mankind solve many medial mysteries, including cancer. But the greatest challenge, like space, has been access.
The last deep-sea dive of similar magnitude happened in 1979, when ocean exploration pioneer Sylvia Earle walked untethered on the sea floor at a record-setting depth. In a clunky pressurized apparatus called the JIM suit, Earle was carried by a submersible to 1,250 feet below the ocean’s surface off the island of Oahu, Hawaii. She explored the ocean depths for two and a half hours, but because of her suit’s limited range of motion, Earle was little more than an observer.
Three-plus decades later, however, the latest generation of deep-sea swimwear will give Lombardi and the expedition’s team an opportunity to see and capture fish more easily and safely, and will allow them to get images of these creatures in their natural habitat.
The Canyons is a region that includes a steep drop from the continental shelf to depths of nearly 2 miles. The expedition’s goals are to record luminescent flashing patterns from a variety of marine life and to identify new bioluminescent molecules with potential for medical applications.
Lombardi will descend at a rate of nearly 100 feet a minute until he reaches his target depth. The dive will take place at night, when deep-sea creatures do their daily vertical migration to the mid-ocean, or some 1,000 feet deep. A robotic submarine called the DeepReef-ROV will accompany Lombardi, supplying lights, cameras and other equipment.
The Exosuit, a dozen years in the making by the Canadian company Nuytco Research Ltd., will allow Lombardi, the American Museum of Natural History’s dive safety officer, to engage this unwelcoming environment in a way humans have never been able.
Life support is self-contained in the Exosuit, which uses an oxygen re-breathing system. Carbon dioxide is removed chemically. The suit can provide 50 hours of life support, and an onboard team is able to bring the high-tech suit to the surface should the pilot be unable.
The deepest Lombardi has been in a typical wetsuit is 450 feet. Wetsuit dives to such depths require a complex mixture of gases, including oxygen, helium and nitrogen. To spend 10 minutes at that depth, Lombardi spent a total of four hours in the water, including three hours slowly decompressing.
The Exosuit, he said, has changed the paradigm when it comes to deep-ocean diving. “We’ll be able to reach out and touch things,” Lombardi said. “We’ll be much more than observers.”
The suit will be tethered to the RV Connecticut with copper and fiber-optic elements that will provide power and communications to Lombardi. He will use the fiber to relay information, including high-resolution video of the specimens he collects in special cartridges, to the team of scientists, researchers and support staff onboard.
The deep sea is a hostile and unforgiving place for humans to visit, never mind work. A decent into this harsh realm ruled by darkness isn’t much different than a journey into space, Lombardi said.
The mission’s bioluminescent organisms of interest live hundreds of feet below the surface and can’t survive at surface pressure. However, neuroscientists, such as Yale’s Vincent Pieribone, are interested in studying possible connections between patterns of bioluminescence and human brain activity.
In fact, bioluminescent proteins are a growing area of exploration for biomedical science. These proteins can be used for diagnostic imaging, and Pieribone has said the proteins can be used to alter a cell’s response to electrical activity — a development that gives them potential for use in the brain, either as a probe or as a tool for developing brain-machine interfaces.
Despite being surrounded by sophisticated technology, Lombardi’s human touch and senses will be the key to the expedition’s success. It will be up to him to identify and capture the samples that might be of interest to his colleagues. Human eyes are more sensitive and reliable than any high-tech camera that has ever been developed.
Pieribone, who will be part of the expedition and hopes to make one of the 10 or so planned dives in the Exosuit, provided he passes his Lombardi-led training, is keenly interested in what the mission finds. With the help of green fluorescent protein from the Aequorea victoria jellyfish, for example, scientists have been able to watch processes, such as the development of nerve cells in the brain, previously invisible to the human eye.
These and other similar proteins exist only in nature, and many exist in the deep sea, according to Lombardi.
The upcoming mission will allow scientists to study the bioluminescent flashing patterns of mesopelagic organisms. Many of these creatures have elaborate arrangements of lights all over their bodies. Scientists know these fish produce light through chemical reactions, but without live specimens to study, scientists have had to base their conclusions on creature anatomy.
“We’ll be able to spend several hours at a time embedded in this environment,” Lombardi said. “We can only dream about what we will discover.”
For the sake of his wife and two young children, he just hopes it’s not an elusive giant squid.
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