Ever since Covid-19 made its way into Bangladesh, the country's hospitals have been gasping for oxygen supply for critical patients who contracted the virus.
If critical patients with a breathing problem can be supplied with concentrated oxygen, they often can be spared from being put on a ventilator – an even more elusive privilege in the context of the country's ailing healthcare system.
In the backdrop of this crying need for medical oxygen supply, a group of former Buet students have stepped up and developed a prototype oxygen concentrator– an equipment capable of supplying oxygen-enriched mixture of gas from the ambient air.
"It is disheartening that the relatives of Covid-19 patients are running from hospital to hospital to get an oxygen cylinder, to no avail. Many patients are losing their lives just due to shortage of oxygen supply," said Professor Dr S. M. Lutful Kabir, one of the developers of the device.
"A portable oxygen concentrator can ease breathing issues and save lives," the Professor working at the IICT, Buet, added.
The developers are now looking for a company to manufacture and market the device. A couple of local farms have checked out the prototype so far, Professor Kabir told The Business Standard.
Currently, there are Chinese-made oxygen concentrators in the local market, which do not have necessary certifications, the Professor said. "These are not entering the market with approval from any testing authority, so we are doubtful about these devices," he added.
"A great feature of the device we developed is that we are using the zeolite imported from the USA, instead of cheap Chinese zeolite," Dr Kabir said. Zeolite absorbs the nitrogen from the air that gets passed over it inside the machine. The remaining gas is mostly oxygen, ready to be supplied to the patient.
"We can get 95% oxygen from our device. Many Chinese devices don't even show the purity of output oxygen. There are others that display a constant value. This is absurd, because the value is supposed to fluctuate due to a couple of factors like air pressure and temperature etc," the Professor continued.
The quality of zeolite is the main factor behind the success of the prototype, according to the developers.
Oxygen concentrators are not only for Covid-19 patients. There is high demand for the equipment for other patients with breathing problems. So, longevity of such devices is an important issue. The Chinese products are not reliable in that sense, the developers of the prototype, dubbed Oxy N Life, said.
Also, there is the issue of repairing the device. There is a part in the machine that can be replaced after a certain amount of use, and the equipment is back to life as new. This can be arranged when it is manufactured locally.
The developers are now focusing on getting WHO's recommendation for the prototype, which is a lengthy process. They will proceed for a patent afterwards.
"We have invited big local companies to come see the equipment. A couple of new startups and other businesses have showed up so far," Dr Kabir said.
A hospital has taken two devices for testing purposes. The developers are now looking forward to building 20 more prototypes for anyone interested to use and test it.
"If a patient can be given oxygen – whether through a cylinder or concentrator – the need for putting him or her on a ventilator is largely reduced. The ongoing cry for ventilators would be less if we could arrange oxygen supply to patients at an early stage," the Professor explained.
But an oxygen concentrator is more feasible because the only expense involved is its purchase, because it can process the ambient atmosphere and supply oxygen, while oxygen cylinders need to get refilled, costing money every time.
Friends from Buet's 1982 batch, who are currently working in various countries across the world, came together to develop the device.
The equipment runs on 220 volt electric supply and uses 340 watts. It is said to supply 70W/L/min oxygen, according to WHO standard.
Sound protective insulation layers have been placed inside in order to bring the noise level to a minimum.
The equipment weighs 21 kg, and can be run with IPS in case of power failure.
The developers do not intend to take a profit for their own from the sale of the device. Instead, the manufacturer will be asked to give back 5% of the price of the product, which will in turn be used for research and development of another life-saving equipment.
Professor Lutful Kabir from Buet, and Professor Shamsuzzaman, currently teaching in Singapore, were in the technical team of the project, who respectively took care of the electrical and chemical engineering part. Dozens of other engineers from the same batch of Buet working in different countries also played roles in the project.