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do make say think

Phil Nuytten, President of Nuytco Research Ltd., is photographed with some of his atmospheric diving systems at Nuytco Research Ltd. in North Vancouver, British Columbia, Friday, July 10, 2015.Rafal Gerszak

Do Make Say Think is the name of a Canadian rock band, but we also thought the title was a good one for a weekly summer series introducing readers to British Columbians out of the public eye who are doing things, making things, saying things and thinking things. This week, for Make, we visit a North Vancouver entrepreneur who builds high-tech submarines and scuba suits but whose underwater ambitious are much larger.

Phil Nuytten is not the first person to dream of setting up an undersea habitat, but the businessman is in a rare club of people with an adequate supply of diving suits, mini subs and other equipment to possibly get it done.

Over a career that began when he set up a Vancouver-area dive shop at age 15, the president of Nuytco Research Limited has accumulated gear that includes Iron Man-style suits that allow diving to depths of 1,000 feet without subsequent decompression.

Now he's 73, working out of a small plant in North Vancouver that resembles Tony Stark's work area, with exosuits dangling from hoists. At least five mini subs were seen during The Globe's recent tour through the facility.

For decades, he has supplied underwater equipment for various industries, including construction, archeology and exploration.

Among about 30 diving helmets in a display case in his office are two he designed and built for James Cameron's 1989 film, The Abyss. Mr. Nuyteen also built a working sub for the production.

But he is also dreaming of something much more ambitious: an undersea habitat about 200 feet below the surface near Vancouver that would serve as a pilot project for a deeper outpost to mine undersea vents.

He is aware it sounds fanciful, but he says that's how tangible accomplishments begin.

"If you don't dream, you never get there," he said in an interview last week at his office.

He said the timing depends on others supporting that dream.

"If I have to do it all myself, it will take the rest of my life to get the final thing done, and I am not exactly a spring chicken," he said.

"If other interested people see the merit in what I am trying to do and join in, conceivably we could do the pilot project in 2018, 2019. By 2020-something, we could do the final Vent Base Alpha."

Mr. Nuytten goes over to a shelf, and takes a framed painting from a wall of books and papers. It's a painting of the scenario: an undersea base, subs, deep-sea suits. There's even a Captain Kirk-like figure, down to the orange tunic.

Mr. Nuytten's habitat would exist at what's called "one atmosphere," meaning its crew of a dozen divers, engineers and others spending several months underseas would exist in an atmospheric state that would be the same in the base, subs and suits. As a result, residents could come to the surface without decompression processes to eliminate inert gases in the diver.

"If that was successful, I would propose to build a deep-water habitat at around 3,000 feet," Mr. Nuytten said.

The pilot effort would be powered and supplied with oxygen from the surface. A more advanced outpost would get its atmosphere and power from energy generated by a complicated effort to tap the varying temperature around those undersea vents. That energy, he says, could also be used to generate oxygen.

He would like to use such a habitat as a base for mining sludge coming off undersea hydrothermal vents, a mix of materials, he says, that could include valuable minerals.

Dr. Ahmad Rteil, an assistant professor at the engineering school at the Okanagan campus of the University of British Columbia, said much of what Mr. Nuytten is proposing for a pilot project is basically feasible, from an engineering perspective.

"They can build it, no problem. Technically, yes," Dr. Rteil said. "The question is how much it's going to cost and whether it's worth it."

Mr. Nuytten did not have any cost projections to offer.

Dr. Rteil said engineering challenges include water currents exerting pressure the structure would have to resist.

"It would be interesting to stay there for a couple days and see how it works," he said.

Dr. Verena Tunnicliffe, a Canada Research Chair in Deep Ocean Research at the University of Victoria, noted there are well-advanced plans to extract minerals from seabed vents in the Papua New Guinea area.

She said there are three such vents in the B.C. region, but they are not producing enough minerals to warrant such an effort.

Dr. Tunnicliffe said such vents exist at depths that may challenge Mr. Nuytten's technology. Still, she's a fan of his ingenuity. "Phil has great exploration tools and really nice submersibles," she said. The future Mr. Nuytten imagines goes even further than mining.

"My ultimate dream is that some day, probably long after I am gone, there will be some little kid sitting on his dad's knee and pointing up to the ceiling and going, 'Dad, is it true that there were once people up there?'" he said.