The Oceangate Titan submarine implodes in the Atlantic Ocean, killing five crew members. The investigation focuses on an experimental carbon-fiber hull, the first of its kind for a deep-sea rover, as a possible cause. Carbon fiber composites have advantages such as light weight and high strength, but their ability to withstand deep-sea pressures is not well understood, highlighting the need for further research and testing in such applications. .
Fragments of the Oceangate Titan submarine are now in the authorities’ possession, and investigators are working hard (literally) to figure out what caused the ship to blow up in the Atlantic Ocean more than two weeks ago.
Northeastern Global News has already reached out to Arun Bancil, a distinguished professor of physics at Northeastern University, to better understand what exactly happened deep underground where five Titan crew members died. I heard the story.
One potential explanation is widely debated. It was an experimental carbon fiber hull, and one report said the company retrofitted the hull in just six weeks.
Northeastern Global News caught up with Bansir again to provide an overview (and history) of the use of carbon fiber materials in deepwater vessels. Dialogue has been edited for brevity and clarity.
There is a lot of talk about the carbon fiber composition of the Titan submarine. Can you explain why carbon fiber materials do not withstand deep ocean pressures as well as titanium, aluminum and steel?
For components that require light weight and high strength, we have successfully developed carbon fiber-based composites for use in the aerospace, automotive, sports, medical and consumer industries.
However, this is not the case when it comes to deepwater applications and steel, titanium and aluminum are widely used in the construction of pressure-resistant hulls.
Titan was the first deep-sea exploration vessel with a hull made primarily of carbon fiber. The ability of carbon fibers to withstand repeated cycles of stress, especially compressive stress, under deep sea pressure is poorly understood, making it difficult to design safe hulls based on carbon fibers.
When assessing Titan failure, the degrading effects of water absorption on the epoxy that binds the carbon fibers within the composite should also be kept in mind.
When did carbon fiber start being considered as a candidate material for this kind of watercraft?
Around the year 2000, adventurer Steve Fossett began researching the use of carbon fiber in the hull of a single-person submersible designed to dive to a depth of about 36,000 feet in Challenger Deep, the deepest part of the Mariana Trench.
Fossett’s commissioned submarine Deepflight Challenger has never been tested or deployed. Titan was the first deep sea submersible with a carbon fiber hull.
Why are companies experimenting with these new materials, and are there other promising alternatives?
New materials are the backbone of revolutionary scientific and engineering advances. Carbon fiber has many advantages over metal such as high strength, light weight and corrosion resistance.
Titan has dived into the Titanic wreck several times, and judgment on the primary triggers for its implosion should be reserved pending the completion of ongoing investigations.
My guess is that researchers will eventually develop carbon fiber-based materials for deep-sea applications and test protocols for safe operation of submersibles.
Read more: Physicist explains how Titan’s ‘catastrophic implosion’ happened and what it meant for those on board
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