Undersea pioneer has deep-seated ambition
Dive expert envisions Mars-like colony off coast of B.C.
By Karen Dyer - Business Edge
Published: 02/05/2004 - Vol. 1, No. 3
Underwater technology guru Phil Nuytten likes to think big - and deep.
When one of Canada´s premier diving pioneers and inventors looks to the future of his industry, he talks knowledgeably about deep sea diving and submersibles, but it is his newest project that really makes his eyes gleam.
"I have a plan for an underwater Mars-like colony. It will essentially be powered by the heat vents on the ocean floor and will house people to work on an undersea mining operation out of the heat vents. I´ve spent the last couple of years talking to people all around the world about this concept, and I´m ready to see it happen. I call it Vent Base Alpha."
Talking with Nuytten is like speaking to Jules Verne, with a difference. While Verne created his futuristic worlds with words, Nuytten shapes his from high-tech plastic and metals. And unlike Verne´s, most of Nuytten´s dreams have actually come to pass.
The underwater technology world is a closely-knit community and Nuytten is a major player in Canada and around the globe. He is the founder and CEO of Nuytco Research Ltd. and Can-Dive Construction Ltd. Oceaneering International Inc., a company he helped found in the 1960s that is currently trading just short of a billion dollars per year on the NASDAQ.
Another one of Nuytten´s companies, Hollywood Underwater Ltd., has been involved in the production of more than 130 movies, including a couple that have his own inventions as the starring characters. The Abyss, Titanic - just about every major production with an aquatic theme has used equipment and manpower from his company.
But research is still his first love. He sees Nuytco as the armourer for deep sea oceanic researchers and divers from around the world.
"We´re like the people who live under the stairs. Nobody knows we´re here, but there is very little in our society that doesn´t involve underwater work," Nuytten says. "The bridges that you cross every morning had their footings placed by deep-sea divers. Trans-Atlantic and trans-Pacific cables are all maintained by undersea vehicles. Docks and dams are inspected and repaired by divers. There´s a tremendous amount of underwater work."
That work load has increased exponentially with the advent of fibre-optic networks, often laid off shore. Nuytten notes that the city of Victoria is soon to be the northern terminus for a web of cable that runs all the way from Oregon. This web contains a series of sensors on the sea floor, broadcasting back a range of data regarding everything from seismic information to fish stocks to undersea mining.
"Victoria has gone about this quietly, but in a big way," he says. "They are setting up a marine observatory centre and a huge inner harbour development all devoted to oceanic research."
Nuytten sees British Columbia as a world leader in oceanic expertise. "Vancouver is sometimes called Submarine City because it is such a hot-bed of excellence in undersea technology," he says.
Colin Heartwell, Director of Policy and Analysis for the Canadian Manufacturers and Exporters Association, notes that while it is only considered a sub-set of Canada´s miscellaneous manufacturing exports, "the federal government has identified ocean technology as a priority of the current Innovation Strategy."
Starting the first dive shop in Vancouver as a 15-year-old, Nuytten worked after school and weekends to establish his business. Once he got his feet wet in the industry, there was no looking back.
After years of salvage diving up and down the coast, in 1979 Nuytten set out to fill what he saw as a gaping hole in the industry - the need for an individual dive suit capable of achieving depths to which only submersibles can descend.
After years of intense research, in 1987 Nuytten was the recipient of the Canadian Award for Business Excellence for the result of his labours. His invention was called the NEWTSUIT, and was the first one-atmosphere diving suit, allowing the wearer unprecedented dexterity and mobility. He formed a manufacturing company called International Hardsuits, and since then, the NEWTSUIT has found its way into almost every navy in the world.
Nuytten could have rested on his laurels, but once again he looked to the depths. The technology behind the NEWTSUIT was changing, and the suits themselves were highly expensive to produce.
After losing International Hardsuits in a hostile takeover to an American firm, he turned his attention to producing single-pilot submersibles called DEEPWORKERS and a lighter and cheaper dive suit called the EXOSUIT.
He´s just completed a lucrative five-year contract with National Geographic in their "Sustainable Seas" project. And last week, Nuytco sent two submarines and five men down to Texas to train marine scientists, underwater technicians and astronauts from the Canadian Space Agency and Johnson Space Centre in the fine art of piloting these tiny machines.
The training takes place in a huge pool, 150 feet wide, 250 feet long and 50 feet deep. This is Nuytco´s second training trip to the Texas-sized swimming pool. The first session, held last July, gave a similar training experience to marine and coral reef scientists from the U.S. and Mexico.
The Canadian astronaut team is led by Dr. Dave Williams, who in past years has had previous neutral buoyancy training in the NEWTSUIT. After the pilot training session, members of the Nuytco team have been invited to participate in the underwater neutral buoyancy laboratory at the Johnson Space Center, where Williams will be working in full space gear in the submerged space shuttle simulator.
Nuytten himself gave up deep sea diving years ago after losing one too many friends to the dangers of the ocean, but he donned a wetsuit in Texas to shoot underwater videos of the training session.
Training sessions like these allow Nuytco to continue to focus on developing the small NEWTSUBS and DEEPWORKER submersibles that Nuytten sees as the most direct route to undersea development and, ultimately, to Vent Base Alpha. Nuytten calls Vent Base Alpha a "totally new concept," and has spent the last couple of years selling it to the international diving community.
His idea is built around utilizing the deep sea vents that pepper the ocean floor around Vancouver Island. These vents are essentially hot, mineral-rich water flowing out onto the ocean floor through volcanic lava between the tectonic plates upon which Vancouver Island floats.
The hot, fluid smoke that emerges from the vents is made up of dissolved minerals. According to Nuytten, the more than 500 degree temperature differential between the water and the material emerging from the vents creates an enormous opportunity to generate power. "When you have that kind of free, unlimited power potential, you can literally set up an artificial sun," he says.
He visualizes a colony under a giant dome, with an enormous generator utilizing this water power to extract oxygen from the water, grow crops and sustain life support systems on the ocean floor. Miners who lived in this world underneath the sea would then cool the water to selectively drop out the metals present in the vent smoke according to their specific gravity. He sees opportunities for many metals, including molybdenum and most particularly cobalt, plentiful in the vents around the west coast.
Science fiction, perhaps? When Phil Nuytten, 1992 Order of B.C. recipient, inventor of the military submarine rescue system REMORA, the NEWTSUIT, the EXOSUIT and the DEEPWORKER submersible is involved, you can be sure he´s not out of his league.