Back at the start of the pandemic, a variety of hacker designs for life-saving machinery may have pushed the boundaries of patient safety. There are good reasons that a ventilator must pass extensive safety testing and certification before it can be attached to a patient, because were it to in some way fail, the patient would die. A year later, we have many much safer and more realistic ways to use our skills as part of the effort.
An oxygen concentrator is both surprisingly simple and imbued with a touch of magic. At its center are two columns of zeolite, a highly porous aluminosilicate mineral that performs the task of a molecular sieve. When air is pumped into the column, the zeolite traps nitrogen, leaving the oxygen-enriched remnant to be supplied onwards. There are two such columns to allow each to be on an alternate cycle of enrichment or purging to remove the accumulated nitrogen.
The point of the video is to show that such a device can be constructed from readily available parts and with common tools; as the title says it isn’t rocket science. Concentrators produced by the hackerspace coalition won’t save the world on their own, but as a part of the combined effort they can provide a useful and reliable source of oxygen that will make a significant difference in a country whose oxygen distribution network is under severe strain.
We’ve all spent the last year or more under the shadow of the COVID-19 pandemic, and though some of us may have been vaccinated or come through its various waves it remains far from over. One of the hardest-hit parts of the world at the moment is in India, where health services are struggling to maintain adequate oxygen supply such is the demand for it from sick patients.
The oxygen concentrator project builds on Makers Asylum’s experience last year as part of an extremely successful network of makerspaces producing PPE, which demonstrates that they have the resources, logistics, and ability to take on a project of this size. The OxiKit is no hare-brained contraption but an established and successful design that is already at work, so we believe that this project has a good chance of success. It’s close to home for Hackaday too, and one of the people involved with it is our colleague [Anool Mahidharia].
In a global pandemic only a global response can overcome the incredible challenges before us. For that reason we’d like to urge you to take a look at the Makers Asylum page wherever you are, and if you can, support it.
To say that a lot has happened in the year since the COVID-19 pandemic started is an understatement of epic proportions, so much so that it may be hard to remember how the hardware hacking community responded during those early days, with mass-produced PPE, homebrew ventilators and the like. But we don’t recall seeing too many attempts to build something like this DIY oxygen concentrator during that initial build-out phase.
Given the simplicity and efficacy of the design, dubbed OxiKit, it seems strange that we didn’t see more of these devices. OxiKit uses zeolite, a porous mineral that can be used as a molecular sieve. The tiny beads are packed into columns made from hardware store PVC pipes and fittings and connected to an oil-less air compressor through some solenoid-controlled pneumatic valves. After being cooled in a coil of copper pipe, the compressed air is forced through one zeolite column, which preferentially retains the nitrogen while letting the oxygen pass through. The oxygen stream is split, with part going into a buffer tank and part going into the outlet of the second zeolite column, where it forces the adsorbed nitrogen to be released. An Arduino controls the valves that alternate the gas flow back and forth, resulting in 15 liters per minute of 96% pure oxygen.
OxiKit isn’t optimized as a commercial oxygen concentrator is, so it’s not particularly quiet. But it’s a heck of a lot cheaper than a commercial unit, and an easy build for most hackers. OxiKit’s designs are all open source, but they do sell kits and some of the harder-to-source parts and supplies, like the zeolite. We’d be tempted to build something like this just because the technology is so neat; having a source of high-flow oxygen available isn’t a bad idea, either.