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Are these ‘artificial gills’ a diver’s dream or crowdsourced snake oil?

Back around the tail end of 2013, tech enthusiasts across the globe went gaga over a conceptual product called the Triton Scuba Mask. It promised to deliver oxygen underwater like a pair of artificial gills, allowing humans to explore the deep without tanks – and it set the Internet abuzz with dreams of breathing beneath the surf, no tank needed. But it was eventually dismissed as a high-flying, unattainable concept that would probably never come to fruition as a living, breathing product.

Is Triton the future of diving, or just high-octane snake oil?

Until a couple weeks ago. That’s when Triton’s creators resurfaced to launch an Indiegogo campaign that has already gathered more than $800,000 from eager backers. Either the technology is legit and the product is real, or these guys are so committed to this extremely elaborate hoax that they’ve developed prototypes, demo videos, and a number of websites just to convince everyone it’s not fake.

So is Triton the future of diving, or just high-octane snake oil? We were as perplexed as any would-be backer, until we decided to swim a little deeper. In addition to speaking with the mask’s creators, we touched base with some of the country’s most prominent chemists, engineers, and marine biologists for their take on the tech. And we’re 99.9 percent certain that Triton is complete and total bullshit. Here’s why.

The claims

Triton claims its mask uses two specialized filters to extract oxygen from water. Allegedly, these filters use microporous hollow fiber, a (real) material comprised of billions of super-small holes that are “smaller than water molecules, [so] they keep water out and let oxygen in,” according to Triton. From there, a “micro compressor then extracts and stores the oxygen,” allowing users to breathe naturally and remain underwater for about 45 minutes.

Sounds too good to be true, right? If the key to underwater breathing is just sucking water through a porous membrane to extract oxygen molecules, wouldn’t somebody have figured that out before now? It seems highly unlikely that three guys have cracked the code to a problem that scientists and engineers have puzzled over for decades.

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But perhaps the Indiegogo page doesn’t tell the whole story. Maybe these Triton guys didn’t want to bore funders with the complex technological details, so we reached out to them to get some additional insight.

Unfortunately, their responses weren’t very enlightening. Over email, Triton co-founder and CEO Saeed Khademi told Digital Trends he couldn’t share any further information because the company hasn’t yet secured any patents on its technology, and it’s worried about somebody stealing the idea.

“We have already showed the information we can without jeopardizing that another company can copy our product,” he said, adding “it is easy to judge but please understand this is our baby and we cannot risk anything, because there is some people that are skeptical about the technology.”

Alright. Fair enough. Despite how dodgy those statements seem, it’s totally possible that the Triton team was so absorbed with developing the tech that they forgot to jump through all the legal hoops needed to protect their invention. So we spoke to the experts to find out more.

Debunking the claims

Assuming that this isn’t just load of hooey, there are two ways this device could theoretically work.

The first and most likely possibility (based on what we can gather from the descriptions) is that the Triton mask works much like a fish’s gills do, and collects O2 molecules that are naturally dissolved in water. In theory, this is totally possible. The question is whether or not such a small device would be able to extract enough oxygen to keep a human being alive under water.

“Hundreds of liters of water would need to flow through a system just to get enough oxygen.”

We turned to Dr. Joseph Bonaventura, Professor Emeritus of Marine Science and Conservation at Duke University, and inventor of the Hemosponge: an artificial gill technology that was funded by the Office of Naval Research and DARPA back in the 70s. If there’s anybody who knows what humans need to breathe underwater, it’s this guy — and his comments on the Triton mask weren’t particularly positive.

“Just do simple math, and overestimate it, even,” he explained. “Air-saturated water contains less than one [cubic centimeter] of oxygen per liter. Take one CC of oxygen per liter of seawater, and multiply that by the number of milliliters of oxygen we need at our basal metabolic rate. If you do the math, it’s hundreds of liters of water that would need to flow through a system just to get enough oxygen.”

With a basal metabolic rate of two liters of oxygen per minute, he calculates, “that’s roughly 50 gallons you’d need to pump every minute just to maintain. You’d never do that with a mouthpiece.”

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Unsurprisingly, this is the same conclusion that many skeptics came to back in 2014, when news about Triton was first circulating around the web. One of the most thorough estimates found that the Triton mask would need to filter about 90 liters per minute (about 24 gallons) to keep someone alive under water, and doing so would require a fairly large pump — one that’s far too big to fit inside such a compact mask.

By all accounts, Triton’s claims just don’t hold water — but before we condemn the tech completely, let’s entertain one more possibility.

A chemical solution

What if the device doesn’t rely solely on filters to remove oxygen from water?

It’s highly unlikely that these artificial gills are legit.

Triton’s comments on Indiegogo suggest that the mask has “a special compound on the inside that blends the oxygen with compound by chemical way [sic].” Its hard to decipher exactly what inventor Jeabyun Yeon means by that, but it does raise the question: Could Triton be leveraging some kind of chemical trick to extract additional oxygen from water?

According to Kristie Boering, Professor and Vice Chair for Physical Chemistry at UC, Berkeley, this scenario isn’t very likely either. “It is difficult to make O2 molecules out of H2O molecules, and it certainly can’t be done this way and this easily,” she explained to Digital Trends in an email. “If it did work, it would make headline news, as it would provide an incredibly simple and cheap way to solve the world’s energy problems.”

Related: There’s a vegetable garden off the coast of Italy, and it’s growing under the sea

So, unless Triton has developed some sort of miracle technology and successfully kept it under wraps until now, it’s highly unlikely that these artificial gills are legit.

Don’t hold your breath

As much as we’d like it to be real, pretty much everything about the Triton mask screams fraud. The lack of details on how the technology works aren’t the only thing that raises a red flag either — there’s also the video.

Demo footage on Triton’s Indiegogo page clearly shows the device being used in a swimming pool, but skeptical eyes can’t miss the fact that the footage never lasts for more than 30 seconds. If this device really allows you to breathe underwater for 45 minutes like the creators claim, why not shoot 3 or 4 minutes of uncut underwater breathing footage just to prove it? Doing so wouldn’t reveal any sensitive technical information about the device, yet would still show potential backers that it’s the real deal.

We expressed these concerns to Triton co-founder Saeed Khademi, who has assured us that a longer, uncut demo video is currently in the works.

We’re not holding our breath.