Saturday, July 7, 2007

Oxygen Tablets

In the Super Saga, The Mystery under the Sea, Doc Savage discoversed a sunken city which is called Taz because of a tableau over the arch at the city's gate:

Over this arch was a carving which explained why the place had been called Taz by Diamond Eve Post and the rest. The design consisted of three groups, probably intended to depict men engaged in mortal combat. Their interlocked, contorted figures, as seen through the crystal water, looked like the three letters: T A Z.
(Chapter 17)
The city of Taz contained a library of tablets that described advanced scientific devices and formulas. One tablet describedthe plans for a telepathy machine (Chapter 18). Another tablet described a formula which when ingested supplied oxygen directly to the blood without the need for breathing (Chapter 14). We are told that the formula tasted like "old socks" and that a spoonful of it would supply all the oxygen you needed with light activity for about 2 hours. As a result of this discovery, Doc later develops "Oxygen Pills" which are used in several later adventures.

Here Doc, Monk and Ham discuss this:

"What about this thing of our not needing to breathe?" {HAM} asked Doc Savage.

"The answer to that might best be started by asking a question," Doc Savage told him. "Why do you breathe?"

"Mainly to get oxygen," Ham said, promptly.

"Correct for the most part," Doc agreed. "There are other reasons, but we will not invite confusion by discussing them. Supposing a chemical mixture which, if taken internally, would supply the oxygen to meet your bodily requirements; what would that mean?"

"You would not need to breathe," Ham said.

Monk exploded. "But oxygen liquefied by compression would work something like liquid air. It would freeze a man’s insides."

"Wait," Doc Savage interposed. "An explanation of that was coming up. Oxygen is taken into the body to accomplish certain very necessary functions. It is conceivable that these same functions might be accomplished by another chemical or element, much less bulky than oxygen, and which could be handled more easily than oxygen."

Monk scratched his nubbin of a head, obviously lost in a fog of technical, chemical possibilities.

"Use your head, missing link!" Ham told Monk, unkindly. "Sure, it is possible. Take those concentrated food tablets we’ve been living on, blast them! They were not beef steak and onions, but they gave you the same necessary elements, did they not?"
(Chapter 14)

Doc made it clear that the actual function of breathing does other things than just provide oxygen, but he never elaborates about this in the story. In fact, the other proper functions for breathing are to exhale carbon dioxide and to thereby control the pH (i.e., acidity) of the blood. So he knew that, in order for this formula to work, it not only needed to provide oxygen but also capture carbon dioxide and buffer the blood to maintain a normal pH of ~7.40. The lungs also allow the off-gassing of other gases dissolved in the blood with decreased atmospheric pressure.

What could this formula have been?

It turns out that modern nanotechnology has been exploring an intriguing possibility which would accomplish this very end. It is possible to construct an artificial red cell that can be literally filled with oxygen which it could release in response to low oxygen tension and which also can be used to absorb carbon dioxide to maintain a balanced pH.

The average liter of human blood contains ~0.2 liters of oxygen at standard conditions whereas one liter of the nanotech artificial red cell can contain 530 liters of oxygen. That is 2650 times more oxygen! Since blood is less than half red cells, replacing them with the nanotech red cells would increase oxygen carrying capacity by more than 1000 fold.

The average non-athletic man in his mid 30s can absorb a 15 ml/min/kg of oxygen at rest. If he weighs 70 kg (normal average male weight) this translates into ~63 liters of oxygen per hour. With moderate exercise, this would be ~100 liters of oxygen per hour.

About 25mls of a thick concentrate of artificial red cells (One heaping tablespoon full) might reconstitute into 500 mls of artificial blood and contain between 100 and 150 liters of oxygen. So it could provide enough oxygen for ~2 hours at rest. They would also have to absorb carbon dioxide and then get it out of the body and could also be designed to scavenge up microbubbles of other gases as well. The CO2 and other gases could be released selectively into the lungs where they could slowly bubble out under water. It could also be released through the lining of the GI tract into the intestines. As the nanocells break down, they could be programed to excrete themselves through the liver into the bile and then into the intestines where they would be eliminated.

The human body contains about 10 liters of blood. If you replaced only one of those liters with a liter of such pure nanocells, you could hold your breath at rest for ~8.5 hours, at moderate activity for ~5 hours, and at heavier activity for over 3 hours. Now if these nanocells were self recharging and lasted for several days, you could scuba dive without tanks as long as you returned to the surface periodically to refill them with oxygen. And you would not run the risk of the bends because you would not be inhaling any air containing nitrogen or other mixture with a filler gas and the nanocells would clear any such bubble from the blood.

An added benefit from such a formula would be increased physical strength and stamina. The limiting factor in exertion is muscle fatigue caused by the build up of lactate in the muscles during exercise. The muscles burn glucose sugar to power themsleves and with strong exertion, they do so under anaeobic conditions (i.e., without the use of oxygen) because the blood cannot provide sufficient oxygen fast enough to keep oxidative phosphorylation going. The self-recharging formula in the blood would provide a virtually limiteless source of oxygen at high levels even n the deepest levels of the muscle. Anyone taking the formula could lift more weight over a longer period without fatigue, and also run faster and longer as well. The one danger to all this would be the tendency to overheat and create a fever from too high a metabolic rate.

So this "Oxygen Pill" -- especially if it could be taken by ingestion -- would give Doc and his men a marked advantage over their enemies in several ways.

This formula from Taz shows a high level of technical sophistication beyond our current capability but not beyond our comprehension.

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