Carbon fiber conundrum: Physicist explains tragic implosion of OceanGates’ Titan submersible

Illustration of carbon fiber breakage

The OceanGate Titan submersible, the first deep-sea vehicle with a hull composed primarily of carbon fibers, recently exploded in the Atlantic Ocean, killing five crew members. Experts, including Arun Bansil, a distinguished physics professor at Northeastern, are investigating the possibility that the vessel’s experimental carbon-fiber hull, built in just six weeks, may have been a key factor in the disaster.

The submarine OceanGate Titan imploded in the Atlantic Ocean, killing five crew members. The investigation focuses on the experimental carbon fiber hull, a first in ocean-going vehicles, as a possible cause. While carbon fiber composites offer advantages such as light weight and high strength, their ability to withstand deep water pressures is not well understood, highlighting the need for more research and testing in such applications.

With debris from the OceanGate Titan submersible now in the possession of authorities, investigators are hard at work reconstructing (literally) what caused the ship to implode in the Atlantic Ocean more than two weeks ago.

Northeastern Global News has already spoken to Arun Bansil, a distinguished professor of physics at Northeastern, to try to get a better understanding of what exactly might have happened deep below the surface, where Titan’s five crew perished. .

One potential explanation has been widely discussed: the vessel’s experimental carbon-fiber hull, which the company transformed 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 ocean-going vessels. The conversation has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Arun Bansili

Arun Bansil, distinguished university professor of physics, poses for a portrait in the ISEC building. Credit: photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

There has been a lot of talk about the carbon fiber composition of Titan submersibles. Can you explain why carbon fiber material may not hold up as well as titanium, aluminum and steel under the pressure of the deep ocean?

For components that require light weight and high strength, carbon fiber-based composites have been successfully developed for use in the aerospace, automotive, sports, medical and consumer industries.

When it comes to deep water applications, however, this is not the case and steel, titanium and aluminum are widely used to make pressure hulls.

Titan was the first ocean-going vehicle with a hull made primarily of carbon fibers. The ability of carbon fibers to withstand repeated cycles of stress, especially compressive stress, under deep sea pressures is not well understood, making it difficult to design safe hulls based on carbon fibers.

The degrading effects of water absorption on the epoxy resin that binds the carbon fibers in the composite should also be considered when evaluating Titan failure.

When did carbon fiber start being considered as a candidate material for these types of watercraft?

Adventurer Steve Fossett appears to have begun exploring the use of carbon fibers around 2000 for the hull of a single-seat submersible to dive to the bottom of the Challenger Deep, which is the deepest point of the Mariana Trench, at about 36,000m feet.

Fossett’s commissioned DeepFlight Challenger submersible has not been tested or deployed. Titan was the first deep-sea submarine with a carbon fiber hull.

Why are companies experimenting with these new materials and are there other alternatives that have shown promising results?

New materials are the backbone upon which transformative advances in science and engineering are built. Carbon fibers offer many advantages over metals, such as high strength, light weight, and corrosion resistance.

Titan made several dives to the sinking of the Titanic and we should withhold judgment on the primary trigger for her implosion until the ongoing investigation is complete.

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 cataclysmic implosion happened and what it meant for those aboard

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