Science Scene: Sick of breathing air? Try fluorocarbons.


Photo Credit: Isabella Palacios | Daily Texan Staff

Science doesn’t need to justify itself. Much like climbing Mount Everest because it was there, there’s a solid amount of research that was done just because the scientists could. A stand out paper from a 1966 issue of “Science” is as solid an example of this as anything else. In this brief paper, the authors describe how they managed to create two liquids that mammals could breathe.

The more successful of the two liquids, fluorocarbon FX-80, can contain about three times the amount of oxygen as air. When the experimenters set the liquid to an appropriate temperature and viscosity, cats could survive completely submerged for an hour and mice could survive for about four, with one plucky individual making it to 20.

Unfortunately, the appropriate temperature was 18° C, or about 65° F — comfortable for air, but cold enough to induce hypothermia in liquid. The FX-80 also damaged the animals’ lungs such that they couldn’t survive more than a few days after immersion.

Later experiments showed that dogs survived the treatment, though this was after a recovery period of a few days when the dogs suffered from low blood oxygen levels. An additional follow-up experiment found that liquid breathing might be beneficial for underdeveloped lambs, suggesting that this seemingly useless bit of science may have practical uses after all.

The success of the experiment with lambs led to trials on premature human babies who had no other hope of survival. Unfortunately, these tests were not successful, and all the treated infants died, though that probably resulted from their dire situation prior to the treatment rather than from the treatment itself.

As of right now, there still aren’t any practical uses for highly oxygenated liquid, though there’s a possibility that may change some day.

The most likely use is as a blood substitute. The blood supply in this country is extremely safe, thanks to thorough testing and, to a lesser extent, a strict screening process. But as we learned from the AIDS scare of the 1980s, all it takes is one new deadly pathogen to destroy that safety net. Also, blood requires donors and has a shelf life of only six weeks, with studies showing that there are deleterious effects on the blood after only three. 

It goes without saying that an artificial substitute could be extremely helpful, and clinical studies have attempted to replace blood with fluorocarbons in animals, but there haven’t been any outcomes positive enough to encourage human trials.

Another possible medical application is using the liquid to reduce the formation of dangerous air bubbles during bypass surgeries. This has been successfully tested in rats, though, again, it’ll probably be a while before doctors apply it to humans.

One of the least likely future uses is in deep sea diving, as seen in the James Cameron epic “The Abyss.” In theory, the liquid should prevent the kind of gas poisoning related to intense pressures that limit the depths free divers can safely descend as well as the speeds in which they can do it. But since it’s not clear that humans can safely breathe liquid in controlled situations on the surface, it’s unlikely anyone will be trying it soon in the inhospitable depths of the Atlantic Ocean.

There’s no question that oxygenated liquids are exciting and could even have potentially practical uses in the distant future. Until those pan out, however, use a snorkel or scuba tank, donate blood regularly, and do everything in your power to keep liquid out of your lungs.