When Paul Webley heard that thousands of Indians were dying because hospitals were experiencing an oxygen shortage, he realised he had the skills to save lives.
For the past three months, Professor Webley has been designing an oxygen conversion unit that can be built from materials found at a local Indian hardware store.
Ideally, any technician with the unit’s design specifications will be able to build it from scratch, load it onto the back of a truck and take it to village hospitals. It should be easy to repair, tough, cheap to make, and able to run on a diesel generator.
An oxygen conversion unit strips the nitrogen from the atmosphere, leaving the oxygen gas behind. India has the capacity to produce liquid oxygen, which is used in steelmaking.
Since the COVID patients have been filling India’s hospital wards, this liquid oxygen has been commandeered for medical use – but it requires refrigerated trucks to transport it, and the trucks are in short supply.
Professor Webley’s conversion unit, on the other hand, would have the capacity to produce oxygen on the spot, wherever it’s required.
“I used to be an engineer at an industrial gas company in America, where I worked on designs for oxygen plants,” he explains. “Then I left that world and became an academic, but my knowledge in oxygen generation didn’t go away.
“When I saw this catastrophe in India, I thought, ‘OK, how do I use some of that knowledge and see if we can help people there.’”
Calling in support on the ground
He quickly realised that unless he had buy-in from a willing partner in India, his idea wouldn’t get off the drawing board. The technical aspects of designing such a unit are certainly important, he says, but equally important is convincing people in affected areas that such a device can work.
Professor Webley’s first call was to Tejas Bhatalia, “a former postdoc of mine” who’s now at Perth’s Curtin University.
Dr Bhatalia set up meetings with his contacts in India to see if anyone was interested in collaborating on Professor Webley’s DIY design. Abishek Sharma, a chemical engineering professor from Manipal University Jaipur, stepped up.
For the past three months, the three men, working in three different cities, have been collaborating via video link to finesse the unit’s design.
Dr Bhatalia has built a small unit in Perth, and Dr Sharma has assembled a slightly larger one in Jaipur. Professor Webley has had to adapt his design to suit the materials Dr Sharma can find in Jaipur.
“My main goal was, can I help Indians do this themselves. Can I teach them how to do this so that they can cookie-cutter them and make thousands and become completely self-sufficient?”
“Urgent times call for urgent measures,” he says. “So the design started in one form. It’s looking like a very different design at the moment. But if an engineer can’t do that, then they’re no good.”
Dr Sharma is “still struggling to make the oxygen purity correct; he’s only getting about 70% purity”, Professor Webley says.
“He needs to get it up to 90%. I’m helping him on a daily basis debug the piece of equipment as it runs, and he gets data … It’s quite tough to do across the ocean, but we’re getting there. He’s very positive.
“He’s been talking to hospitals in his area, and he’s secured a place where they can take it out and test it, and see if it will meet the hospital’s specifications and standards. If that works out, he’s already got divisions to say, ‘OK, we can make more of these.’”
Portable oxygen conversion units already exist for patients with chronic respiratory problems – they can be set up in the home, and are either purchased outright or leased from a hospital. Professor Webley’s unit is different.
“My version is slightly bigger,” he says. “And it’s not necessarily for home use, because the villages in India don’t have electricity.”
Instead, his “steampunk” unit is designed to supply oxygen to 10, 20 or 30 patients at a time.
“My main goal was, can I help Indians do this themselves?” he says. “Can I teach them how to do this so that they can cookie-cutter them and make thousands and become completely self-sufficient?”
The only specialist ingredient is the “molecular sieve”, a form of silicon, which filters out the nitrogen. It’s inexpensive, and relatively easy for a chemical engineer to purchase, Professor Webley says.
The oxygen the unit produces is “pretty much the same as the oxygen you get out of a bottle”, he says.
The pressure is lower, but in hospitals “you’re not taking high pressure gas anyway when you’re breathing it”.
“We make it at an intermediate pressure. The hospital has told us it’s good enough for their use to hook up to their system.”
Another option is for the unit to operate “as a standalone facility where we have a little compressor, and they compress it up to a high pressure, people come along with empty bottles, and we fill up the bottles and then they take them away”, as people do with cooking gas (LPG).
Professor Webley has approached engineers in Brazil – where oxygen is also desperately needed – about building a DIY unit, but his Brazilian collaborator hasn’t made as much progress as Dr Sharma in Jaipur.
The unit could also be adapted for African countries in need, or for Nepal or Bangladesh if necessary, he says.
Politics provides a hurdle
He says the problems he faces are not practical – he’s confident that Dr Sharma’s converter will be operational soon – but political.
“We’re trying to provide oxygen to the medical industry, which is very heavily regulated for good reason. So unless your product meets all of these specific, very tight regulations, they don’t want it,” he explains.
“That’s all well and good, but when you have people dying because they don’t have enough oxygen, second-best is OK.
“Let’s not throw out a good solution because we’re looking for a perfect solution. We’re not trying to compete with industrial gas companies. It’s not a business we’re setting up.”
He’s been donating his time for free.
“To me, the whole point of being an engineer is to be able to help humanity,” he says.
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