To support the LMICs and ensure that no more patients would die due to the lack of access to medical oxygen, Sentient Bionics’ team started the SentOx project, an oxygen machine in a briefcase, in March 2020.
Aaron Duivenvoorden is the lead engineer of the project, which has developed a lot since it started.
How has SentOx evolved in the last few months?
There has been a lot of validation and durability testing of the design. We're are now up to prototype 3.0, which is very exciting. We've made some major changes and have seen some dramatic performance increases. This has made us competitive with leading oxygen concentrators. We've also got a focus on durable and rugged components that are especially suited to be used in dirty and humid environments.
What makes SentOx different from other oxygen concentrators?
I mentioned the rugged and durable components and also the way that we've designed the system. We have put a lot more resources and design into air treatment (the air that goes into the oxygen concentrator). It means that the unit can last longer and can also operate in humid environments in comparison to other oxygen concentrators which are on the market. Many of them recommend being used only in an air-conditioned room. That's not the environment that they're being used in low-middle-income countries. The use-case we're focused on will more likely include a dusty floor or a wet, humid and dirty environment.
To bring it back to the question, what makes SentOx different is that we're really thinking about the conditions of low and middle-income countries clinics and making sure our product is suitable for them. That's where we want our units to be used, where they can do a lot of good and where they can save a lot of lives.
What processes have you developed or created that enhanced engineering performance capabilities on the SentOx project?
The oxygen concentrator is not a new type of device. We haven't reinvented the wheel. We have based it on a classic Skarstrom Cycle, in the way that the pressure swing absorption system uses two chambers and nitrogen is separated from the air. It's a very established process and what we've done is focused on making it more durable.
I think what we're doing differently is that we've come at this problem with fresh eyes, fresh experience and we're using intelligent systems within our oxygen concentrator. We take feedback from it, we have sensors that detect the pressure at different points, temperature, humidity within the system, whereas commercial units that we've seen, none of them have inbuilt feedback or sensors within them. That's something that we've done differently. It has also been helpful for us in understanding in-depth how the system is operating and allows us to finely calibrate it. It has allowed us to be informed about how the system is operating and also be dynamic, in that we can understand that with different input conditions (that might be if a different pump input or a different environmental condition such as that temperature) the system is going to behave in a slightly different way. Because we've got sensors on it, it can adapt, and the unit's performance won't be as compromised.
What's the biggest challenge you’ve had or you’re having now while developing SentOx?
The challenge that we're facing is a similar challenge to any developer of oxygen concentrators right now: the treatment and protection of the zeolite sieve beds which separate the nitrogen. They use a material called zeolite, very sensitive to moisture. If it gets wet and dirty, then it doesn't separate nitrogen anymore and you can't produce oxygen. The majority of the machines that get broken, we've been told it's because of the sieve beds having moisture contamination during transportation. We have invested a lot more into the dehumidification process before the sieve beds, but during transit as well.
We're also wanting to vacuum bag and seal the units while they're being transported because otherwise, the sieve beds will suck in the moisture of the air all around them. If they're in a boat for days or weeks while they're being transported, they can be damaged when they arrive at their destination and won't work as well. So really, being conscious of those challenges is something that we're thinking about every day to make sure that we're handling the unit right.
Something else I think that we're approaching very differently is that we're wanting to support our product with a through-life support system, we're making sure that right until the unit gets to the user, and for as long as it's being used by the user, there is a representative or a trained person that can assist and help them use that unit. So we're dedicated to making sure that the people that are using our unit know how to take care of it, which is not the strategy of current commercial units.
Where do you see the project in 6 months?
Within six months, I see our project continuing to grow hugely in the number of employees we have and the number of funding that we have access to because there's a lot of recognition for the need and the type of product we're working on. We are also working to connect with more partners, reach out to more organisations and expand our network. This is so we can grow the product and help it reach more people that need it.
I see very big and bright things for the SentOx project in the months to come.