Dr. Bryn Sobott completed his PhD in Experimental Particle Physics in 2010 and received the Bragg Medal nomination for best thesis from the University of Melbourne. He has successfully designed and executed experiments at the SSRL (Stanford), SLS (Zurich), Max-Lab (Lund) and the Australian Synchrotron (Melbourne). His FREO2 project was awarded seed funding in the Saving Lives at Birth Challenge 2013.
Five years ago, when I thought about life-saving medicine, I imagined huge biotech companies with multi-million dollar factory lines churning out tons of capsules day and night. I know now that sometimes the simplest solutions are the best medicine. Pneumonia is the single biggest killer of children around the world. Treating the condition requires something we all have access to: Oxygen. The World Health organization has singled out this basic building block of life as an essential treatment for the infection. It was this realization that set our group to tackle the problem: “How can we provide oxygen to those in need?”
“Sure – I’ve got a couple of concentrators here you can have!” replied Reg, the maintenance technician at a local hospital in Melbourne, Australia. This response to my cold-call looking for old oxygen concentrators was my first taste of how eager people are to help when they learn what we are trying to do. It’s also the spirit that enabled us to run the project for years without funding.
Preliminary measurements on the donated oxygen concentrators showed that the air compressor in the machine was consuming nearly all of the electricity. Oxygen is free and available to all; electricity is not. The problem then morphed into “How can we compress air without electricity?”
An example of a hydraulic ram pump
As a kid, growing up in rural Australia, I was always intrigued by one particular object in our barn. Mum explained it was a pump, but how could it lift water with no fuel and with only two valves? What seemed like magic to me as a child, I now know is a hydraulic ram pump and is based on sound science. By modifying the pump in the barn we were able to compress air to a level suitable for separation (into oxygen and nitrogen) but the air was too wet to be suitable for concentration.
Our next attempt at a water-fueled concentrator was based on the Trompe – a device used to compress and dry the air in mines in remote areas of Canada. There were reports of one running for 30 years after the mines shut down! I guess if it doesn’t cost anything to run why bother turning it off? So I built one on the side of my parent’s house…
Results from the Trompe were mixed. Our major concern was that poor water quality would compromise the concentrated oxygen, and keeping the device stored underground was impractical and costly. We were able to address these problems by flipping the pump upside down to make a siphon.
The author’s first attempt at a water-fuelled concentrator built on the side of his parents’ house.
With this novel idea and preliminary results we applied to the Saving Lives at Birth Challenge for funding to fully prototype and field trial the device in Papua New Guinea. After a multitude of rejection letters from other funders, we were shocked to learn we were a finalist for the 2013 Saving Lives at Birth: Grand Challenge for Development. We were invited to participate in the Saving Lives at Birth Development XChange in Washington, DC in July 2013.
Upon arriving at the Development XChange, I felt like an impostor. After all, I’m not even first-aid trained and I was meeting people with health qualifications I didn’t know existed. But this fear faded quickly. Everybody had the same view — that mothers and babies dying from preventable illness is unconscionable. Clearly, we were blown away when we heard our team was part of the 2013 Saving Lives at Birth award nominees.
The months since we received our seed grant saw a steep learning curve – media, intellectual property agreements and complex ethical issues to name but a few. Of course, unforeseen technical problems have also surfaced; one such problem led me to seek out one of the world’s leading world’s leading oxygen separation experts, only to find he’s within walking distance of the University of Melbourne campus. Having ready access to a broad range of expertise through the Saving Lives at Birth community has become critical for us to produce a system capable of saving lives in low and middle-income countries. We’ve still got some way to go, but we are confident that we are closer than ever before to reaching our goal of getting oxygen to isolated health clinics.
To say that the last year has been busy is an absolute understatement and I’m eager to hear how my colleagues have fared at this years’ DevelopmentXChange.
Saving Lives at Birth: A Grand Challenge for Development is a partnership between Grand Challenges Canada (funded by the Government of Canada), the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), the Government of Norway, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, and the UK’s Department for International Development (DFID). Together, we call for groundbreaking prevention and treatment approaches for pregnant women and newborns in poor, hard-to-reach communities around the time of childbirth.