Woods Hole Celebrity Gets an Upgrade
The submersible Alvin will get a $40 million retrofit.
Thanks to a grant from the National Science Foundation, a celebrity of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) is undergoing a major overhaul and upgrade: the submarine named Alvin. Originally named for Allyn Vine, an engineer and geophysicist from WHOI who provided the creative inspiration for the submersible, Alvin has been involved in extensive and important underwater ocean research around the globe for over 40 years
On a typical dive, the pilot and two scientists would climb into a 6-foot titanium sphere filled with equipment. For the duration of the dive, there would be no room to stand up, no seats and no bathroom. Scientists would sit on thin mats on the floor and peer out view ports the size of teacup saucers. The pilot would drive sitting on a small metal box.
Even under those tough conditions, Alvin has logged more than 4,600 dives and carried over 9,270 passengers since it was first put into service in 1965. That's more dives for deep ocean research than any other comparable vehicle.
In 1966, Alvin’s crew located a hydrogen bomb that was lost in the Mediterranean Sea. Then it explored the first known hydrothermal vents in 1977, discovering extraordinary life forms; and in 1986 it conducted detailed surveys of the wreck of the RMS Titanic.
Up until now, Alvin’s capabilities have allowed dives up to 4,500 meters (or 2.8 miles) deep. However, starting this month, Alvin will undergo a two-stage, $40 million refit and upgrade that will allow dives of up to 6,500 meters (more than 4 miles) and for up to 12 hours.
To start, a new personnel sphere with improved ergonomics and a nearly 20 percent increased interior volume will be integrated into Alvin’s modified frame. The walls of the new titanium sphere will be increased from 2 to 3 inches thick, as it must be able to withstand the immense pressure at 6,500 meters — 650 times the pressure felt on the surface of the earth.
Alvin’s field of view will be improved by increasing the view ports from three to five, which will provide overlap of the viewing areas. Other improvements will include improved illumination and imaging systems, as well as improved data collection, logging and interface capability. There will also be an increase in the payload for Alvin’s basket for carrying supplies and equipment.
The new interior setup will be more user-friendly, with plans for adjustable benches that allow passengers the choice of kneeling, sitting or lying flat. Weight limits prohibit too many frills and safety considerations add constraints.
Unfortunately, the new modifications will not include any indoor plumbing.
The final stage of the upgrade will be batteries. As lithium-ion battery technology improves and as funding becomes available, new batteries allowing for longer dive times will be installed.
The overhaul will take 16 months. During that time Alvin’s tender, the R/V Atlantis, will undergo modifications to the Alvin launch and recovery system and the Alvin hanger and will conduct other oceanographic work.