Adaptable oxygen conversion unit developed by Monash University

oxygen conversion unit

Manipal University's Professor Abishek Sharma with the oxygen conversion unit.

Researchers at Monash University have developed an oxygen conversion unit that can be built from local materials, which will enable doctors to provide life-saving oxygen treatment, particularly in India. 

Oxygen conversion units strip the nitrogen from the atmosphere, leaving the oxygen gas behind. The large numbers of COVID-19 cases in India necessitate a larger supply of oxygen tanks. 

While India has the capacity to produce liquid oxygen, attaining it for medical use has proven difficult due to a short supply of refrigerated tracks, which are needed to transport the product. 

Monash University’s Department of Chemical Engineering professor Paul Webley recognised the urgent need for a low-cost solution. He designed the oxygen conversion unit to be built from materials found at local Indian hardware stores. 

This enabled any technician with the design specifications to build it and transport it to village hospitals. The unit is also easy to repair, durable and able to run on a diesel generator. 

“The conversion unit which we’ve developed has the capacity to produce oxygen on the spot, wherever it is required,” Webley said. 

“When I saw the catastrophe unfolding in India, I just knew that I needed to do something.” 

Webley was joined by Curtin University research fellow Dr Tejas Bhatalia and Manipal University chemical engineering professor Abishek Sharma to develop the unit. 

After three months of virtual collaboration, Bhatalia built a small test unit in Perth and Sharma assembled a larger production version at Manipul University in Jaipur, where testing is now underway. Webley’s original design was slightly adapted to suit materials readily available in Jaipur. 

“We’re currently in the process of ensuring the oxygen purity is sufficient,” Sharma said. 

“We’re currently getting about 70 per cent purity and our aim is to get this up to 90 per cent. The team and I are working on changes to make this happen and are confident we’ll be able to do so soon.” 

The researchers have been in contact with local hospitals in the area to secure a test site for the unit, to determine if it will meet the hospital’s specifications and standards. If these tests prove successful, the team will develop more units.  

While portable oxygen conversion units already exist for patients with chronic respiratory issues, this new conversion unit can supply oxygen to 10, 20 or 30 patients at a time. It is also adaptable to be made from readily available materials. 

“My main goal was to help Indian engineers do this themselves,” Webley said. 

“Can I teach them how to do this so that they can duplicate them and make thousands and become completely self- sufficient?” 

The only specialist material in the unit is the molecular sieve – a form of silicon which filters out the nitrogen. However, it is inexpensive and relatively easy for chemical engineers to obtain. 

The oxygen unit produces a similar amount of oxygen that an oxygen bottle would provide, however the pressure is lower. Hospitals have advised that the new oxygen unit is efficient and compatible with their existing systems. 

The research team are also looking to adapt the oxygen unit for Brazilian hospitals, where oxygen is needed as well. They are now seeking collaborators to help promote the design, development and deployment of the technology to other countries affected by the pandemic.  

To find out more about the new oxygen conversion unit, read the full story on Monash Lens. 

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