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Air Force researchers test deployable oxygen generation

  • Published
  • By Shireen Bedi
  • Air Force Surgeon General Public Affairs
Air Force medics delivering trauma care in austere environments face many challenges. One dilemma Air Force researchers are working to overcome is the need for a mobile, effective, and safe way to supply medical oxygen to treat patients with severely damaged lung function closer to the point of injury.

“Oxygen therapy is critical for patients with multiple traumas, and the earlier it can be provided, the better outcomes are,” said Mark Laidler, an Air Force civilian and program manager for the battlefield oxygen development program. “We are working to address gaps in current combat oxygen delivery systems. There is a need for increased portability, safer equipment to transport, and increased oxygen flow rates down range.”

To solve this problem, Air Force Medical Service researchers are developing and testing new, lighter, safer and easier to deploy oxygen delivery systems. A major step in this direction is a system called SAROS 15, which works as an oxygen concentrator instead of depending on a traditional oxygen tank. An oxygen concentrator uses the surrounding air to produce medical oxygen, solving many of the drawback of relying on traditional liquid oxygen tanks.

“Our new oxygen concentrator delivers oxygen at a rate of 15 liters per minute,” said Tom Solomon, an Air Force Life Cycle Management Center medical subject matter expert at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base. “This is a vital improvement to traditional liquid oxygen tanks without compromising the U.S. Pharmacopeia medical-grade oxygen concentration standards.”

The USP standard for “medical O2” requires at least a 90 percent concentration. The new system does not deliver quite as high a concentration as a liquid oxygen tank, but still exceeds the USP standard with a concentration of approximately 93 percent, and offers other significant improvements.

AFMS researchers are also working to make the device more portable for combat medics to transport and use in austere settings where they may have limited vehicle support. The portable oxygen concentrator weighs only 46 pounds, considerably lighter than comparable models of oxygen delivery systems. The manufacturer was also able to simplify the device and improve the battery technology for a full hour of operation.

Another benefit of relying on an oxygen concentrator is that the device does not pose the same risks associated with liquid oxygen tanks.

“There are safety issues when it comes to carrying liquid oxygen as they are highly explosive and dangerous,” said Laidler. “Having someone carry a heavy, combustible tank on their backs is not an ideal situation.”

The AFMS improved on the medical features of existing portable oxygen devices. Performing trauma care in austere environments can sometimes require a higher flow rate of oxygen than more traditional care settings. Current technology has a flow rate around three to four liters per minute. While this works in most cases, it is not enough for patients with seriously compromised lung function. SAROS 15 delivers the higher flow rate of large liquid oxygen tanks without many of the drawbacks, bringing therapeutic care closer to the point of injury.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has approved this portable oxygen concentrator for use, and the Air Force is now testing the device to ensure it is safe to fly on an aircraft. This process follows the Joint En Route Care Equipment Test Standard that involves testing by a team of subject matter experts to ensure the medical device is safe to use on applicable airlift platforms in the U.S. Air Force inventory.

“We want to make sure the aircraft does not interfere with the equipment and the equipment does not interfere with the aircraft,” said Solomon. “We also need to ensure the device works properly at higher altitudes. It’s our hope that the smaller footprint of this new device will make real improvements to combat casualty care.”