The OceanGate Titan submersible imploded in the Atlantic Ocean, killing five crew members. Investigations are focusing on the experimental carbon fiber hull, a first in deep water vehicles, as a possible cause. While carbon fiber composites offer advantages such as low weight and high strength, their ability to withstand deep water pressure is not well understood, emphasizing the need for further research and testing in such applications.
With the remains of the OceanGate Titan submersible now in the possession of authorities, investigators are hard at work piecing together (literally) what caused the vessel to implode in the Atlantic more than two weeks ago.
Northeastern Global News has already spoken with Arun Bansil, a distinguished professor of physics at Northeastern, to try to get a better understanding of exactly what might have happened all those fathoms below the surface, where the five Titan crew members died.
One potential explanation has been widely discussed: the vessel’s experimental carbon fiber hull, which the company turned around in just six weeks, according to a report.
Northeastern Global News tapped Bansil again to provide a brief overview (and history) of the use of carbon fiber materials in deepwater vessels. The conversation has been edited for brevity and clarity.
There has been a lot of talk about the Titan submarine’s carbon fiber composition. Can you explain why carbon fiber material might not hold up as well as titanium, aluminum and steel under deep sea pressure?
For components that require low weight and high strength, carbon fiber-based composites have been developed for use in the aerospace, automotive, sports, medical and consumer industries.
However, for deep sea applications this is not the case and steel, titanium and aluminum are widely used to make pressure hulls.
The Titan was the first deep-sea vessel with a hull made primarily of carbon fiber. Carbon fiber’s ability to withstand repeated cycles of stress, especially compressive stresses, under deep water pressure is not well understood, making it difficult to design safe hulls based on carbon fibers.
The degrading effects of water absorption on the epoxy that binds the carbon fibers in the composite should also be taken into account when assessing the failure of the Titan.
When did carbon fiber start to be considered as a candidate material for these types of watercraft?
It appears that adventurer Steve Fossett began exploring the use of carbon fiber around 2000 for the hull of a one-person submersible to dive to the bottom of the Challenger Deep, which is the deepest point in the Mariana Trench at approximately 36,000 feet.
The DeepFlight Challenger submersible that Fossett ordered has not been tested or deployed. Titan was the first deep water vessel with a carbon fiber hull.
Why are companies experimenting with these new materials, and are there other alternatives that have shown promise?
New materials are the backbone of transformative scientific and engineering advances. Carbon fibers offer many advantages over metals, such as high strength, light weight and corrosion resistance.
Titan had made several dives to the sinking of the Titanic and we should withhold judgment on the primary trigger for the implosion until the ongoing investigations are completed.
My guess is that researchers will eventually develop carbon fiber-based materials for deep-sea applications, along with test protocols for the safe operation of submersibles.
Read more: Physicist explains how Titan’s ‘catastrophic implosion’ happened – and what it meant for those on board