Eau de Amine

One of the first questions I’m asked is, “Where do you get your air when you’re underwater?” Quite simply, we make it. In order to survive, you need to breathe in oxygen and exhale carbon dioxide. The same principle is true for the submarine.

First let’s look at oxygen. We get oxygen from a process called electrolysis. We take pure water and run an electric current through it. The water splits into hydrogen and oxygen. The hydrogen is vented overboard. The oxygen is either sent to the submarine or to storage tanks.

Getting rid of the carbon dioxide is accomplished with a chemical we call amine. When amine is cool, it absorbs carbon dioxide. When it is heated, it releases the carbon dioxide. We have a machine that has two chambers. In the first, the amine is cooled. It gets pumped through a nozzle that looks like a shower head at the top of the chamber. The cooled amine rains down as little droplets inside the chamber. Air form the submarine gets blown through the amine stream and carbon dioxide is absorbed. When the amine reaches the bottom, it is collected and pumped into the second chamber. In the second changer, the amine is heated, and releases the carbon dioxide. The carbon dioxide is compressed and vented overboard.

There’s one problem with amine, it smells. The best description I have for the smell is rotten fish that have been soaking in lubricating oil. Since the small droplets of amine are blowing through the air, the smell gets into everything. You get used to the smell pretty quickly, but other people notice it. I always told the newcomers to wrap their civilian clothes inside two garbage bags. Before sealing the garbage bags, drop two bars of soap inside. Your clothes will smell like soap when you pull into port.
Not everyone takes this advice. We’ll pull into a port, and the sailors get ready for a night out on the town. They just never can figure out why women are backing away from them all the time.

Submariners have a very distinctive smell. The amine not only gets into your clothing, but also your hair and the pores of you skin. It takes several scrubbings in the shower before a woman will even think of hugging you. Most wives leave a bathrobe for their husbands in the garage. When he gets home, he leaves his clothes there and heads straight for the shower. His wife finally greets him after he’s clean.

People’s reactions when we first pulled into port always made me wonder. The technological miracles the machinery performed allowed us to survive underwater, but people acted as if we smelled like corpses. Did we really survive our voyage?


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