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Health, Science & Tech

Getting Oxygen To Babies In Developing Countries Is Difficult. A Bicycle Could Soon Change That

Mark Nootbaar
90.5 WESA
Startup OxyGen hopes to soon offer hand pump or bicycle-powered oxygen machines to remote areas and developing countries.

Oxygen is something that many of us take for granted. But many people with breathing disorders can't take it in on their own -- and it's especially difficult for people living in poor and remote parts of the world. 

Scientist Wendy Zhang recalled the difficult decisions a physician in Gabon, Africa had to make as the result of limited resources. 

"On some, she had to make the heart-wrenching decision of which baby to live and which baby to die just because they don’t have oxygen to supply both,” Zhang said.

Zhang and three other scientists are working to address oxygen shortages through the University of Pittsburgh-supported Blast Furnace business accelerator. 

The World Health Organization says Pneumonia is the leading cause of child mortality globally, and a recent study finds demand for oxygen in developing countries outstrips supply by 68 percent.   

Collecting oxygen from the air is not an overly complicated task. Air can be passed through a filter that collects nitrogen and since air is about 78 percent nitrogen and 21 percent oxygen, what comes out the other side is nearly all oxygen.

But team member Sushrut Bhalerao said the process traditionally needs reliable electric power.  

“So we have two different methods we are looking at right now. One is hand crank, another is hand pump and the other is bicycling method,” Bhalerao said.

The prototype machine created by the team, known as OxyGen, can provide a consistent flow of 2 liters of oxygen per minute, which is enough to keep a baby alive or help an adult with pneumonia recover.

It might sound easy to just convert an electric powered machine to mechanical power, but Zhang said there was a lot to consider.

She said the team had to figure out how to create a constant pressure flow from the always changing human-powered pump. They also had to remake valves that are usually controlled electronically.

And the solution had to be simple.

“To allow people without medical background (to) be able to use it,” Zhang said. “Because we also, through research, realized there was a heavy shortage of staffing in clinics. So if the patients’ family members can use it, great.”

Battery-operated oxygen filters usually cost more than $1,000. OxyGen hopes to make a machine that could sell for less than $200.

Team Leader James Newton is in Malawi, Africa trying to assess demand while looking for partners to distribute the machines. The team is also looking for investors to help refine the product.

In this week's Tech Headlines:

  • In a twist on the phrase “if you see something, say something,” researchers at Carnegie Mellon University’s CREATE Lab are asking that if you “smell something, post something.” The team has expanded the Smell PGH smartphone app to include time-lapse animations on its map based on times and locations of smell reports. The hope is to give users a better idea of which way a plume of possible pollution is drifting. Also, a new companion website smellpgh.org enables anyone to interact with the Smell PGH map without downloading the app. Since the CREATE Lab launched Smell PGH 10 months ago, the crowdsourcing app has been downloaded more than 1,300 times and has been used to report foul odors more than 4,300 times. Users can note the nature and intensity of the smell, as well as any symptoms they might be experiencing. They also can choose to receive alerts about smell reports as well as notable changes in Pittsburgh’s official air quality index.
  • The chief executive of Russia's Kaspersky Lab says he's ready to have his company's source code examined by U.S. government officials.  He says it will help dispel long-lingering suspicions about his company's ties to the Kremlin. Eugene Kaspersky says he's also ready to move part of his research work to the U.S.  As the company’s anti-virus products grew in popularity in the U.S. market, some became concerned it could be funneling information back to Russia.  Senior U.S. intelligence officials have suggested Congress steer well clear of Kaspersky's products and lawmakers are weighing a proposal to ban the company from the Pentagon.

The Associated Press contributed to this report. 

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