03/24/2012 04:00 EDT | Updated 05/23/2012 05:12 EDT

Phil Nuytten, B.C. Inventor Builds Exosuit -- Metal Diving Suit That Can That Can Withstand Depths


VANCOUVER - Forget space being the final frontier, diving-suit designer Phil Nuytten says it's the deep-sea that truly calls for further exploration and he has just the vehicle to get us there.

Nuytten, president of North Vancouver, B.C.'s Nuytco Research Ltd., believes his latest invention — a hard-metal diving suit, described as a "submarine" that allows its lone occupant to descend to 300 metres — will lead to further advances in his field.

The Exosuit, which looks like a cross between a space suit and the Iron Man movie costume — and comes with an optional thruster pack — is being unveiled at North America's largest diving show in New Jersey this weekend.

The Exosuit is the latest accomplishment in an impressive career that began while Nuytten was still in high school in the late 1950s, and has landed him in the pages of some of North America's leading publications, led to business relationships with NASA and the United States and Canadian militaries, and earned his induction into two diving halls of fame.

"Three-quarters of this planet is forbidden to us by our design," said Nuytten, a native of Vancouver who was named to the Order of British Columbia back in 1992.

"We can't go to the extremes even on this earth."

The suit weighs between 225 and 270 kilograms, is equipped with high-definition video, sonar and fibre-optic cables and allows a diver to operate at a depth of 300 metres with a life support capability of 50 hours.

A thruster pack allows the diver to power through the ocean's depths.

An earlier version of the Exosuit was the Newtsuit and is used by navies around the world.

Nuytten said the suits are necessary because of the dangers of deep-sea diving, which without his suit is capital intensive and very expensive.

At 300 metres, divers working on cable crossings, fuel and oil pipelines, offshore drilling rigs and submarine rescues, experience pressure of about 500 pounds per square inch, he said, and the air they breath is also subject to those same pressures.

"That pressure of gas, of air, would be absolutely impossible to tolerate. You'd take two breaths and be a goner," he said.

Those who dive to such depths, without suits like his, are known as saturation divers because of the arduous preparation and recovery procedures they are subjected to, he said.

Nuytten said deep-water dives require large ships with enormous amounts of space to store heavy equipment, like a diving bell, gas storage system and gas reclamation system.

The gases, a mixture of helium and oxygen, needed on such dives can cost $100,00 to $200,000, he said.

Pressurizing a diver to work at such a depth takes at least 24 hours, a process that can lead to muscle convulsions if its not done properly, said Nuytten.

Nuytten said his diving suit eliminates many of the problems connected with those dives and cuts down on capital costs.

"This is a submarine that you wear. When you climb into that suit, you close the hatch on the surface and in the suit the pressure is 14.7 pounds per square inch, same as you and I are both at right now, and it never increases. So you are never, ever exposed to any more pressure than you were designed and built to handle," he said.

No large ship is needed to deploy the suit, he said, because of the Exosuit's size.

Nuytten said a company that used the Newtsuit on one North Sea dive back in the mid-1980s saved about $25 million.

The Exosuit costs under $500,000.

Kelly Korol, director of training and operations at DiveSafe International, a Campbell River. B.C., school, said Nuytten has been a role model for him and is well known and respected across the industry.

"He's a brilliant man," he said. "You know, I think everyone respects him for his push of underwater technology."

Korol said that in some respects deep-sea diving is more difficult than space work because of the pressures divers are subjected to.

He said Nuytten developed the joint systems for his diving suits and was then approached by NASA which then "reverse engineered" it for space work.

"It went from an underwater invention to a outer space invention," he said.

A media release, published by this weekend's New Jersey show, Beneath the Sea, announced it will "open the door [on] scuba diving's future with the new Exosuit," adding the suit is designed with "operational capabilities far exceeding existing technology."

Apparently unphased by many of the accolades, Nuytten remains approachable and focused on the future of his profession.

He said he has already begun work on a suit that will allow divers to descend to 600 metres and plans to work on another that will take them even farther to 900 metres.

Nuytten said there's much potential in the ocean's depths, including farming and even the mining of metals in an environmentally friendly way.