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How Does an Oxygen Concentrator Work?

How Does an Oxygen Concentrator Work?

Evonne Matt |

Whether you use an oxygen concentrator and want to understand it better, or you’re just curious about them, this article is for you. Let’s look at how an oxygen concentrator works. 

An oxygen concentrator is a medical device designed to deliver purified oxygen to patients with respiratory conditions. By drawing in ambient air, removing nitrogen, and delivering a higher concentration of oxygen, these devices play a vital role in the management of various respiratory conditions. 

Let’s take a closer look at the science behind oxygen concentrators, examining the processes that enable the production of highly concentrated oxygen from the environment.

What Is an Oxygen Concentrator?

An oxygen concentrator, also commonly referred to as an oxygen generator, is a medical device designed for patients who require enhanced levels of oxygen due to respiratory conditions or breathing difficulties. The primary function of this device is to provide oxygen therapy by continuously purifying atmospheric air, ensuring a steady delivery of oxygen to the user.

In contrast to traditional compressed or liquid oxygen tanks, which deplete over time and require replacements and refills, oxygen concentrators harness oxygen from the air around them. They are engineered to extract and purify up to 90% to 95% of the oxygen content, effectively eliminating the need for external oxygen sources. 

Oxygen Concentrator vs Oxygen Tank: Which Is Better?

Choosing an oxygen concentrator over an oxygen tank is influenced by several factors:

  1. Oxygen concentrators pull in ambient air and purify it to provide a continuous supply of oxygen, eliminating the risk of running out, as can happen with oxygen tanks.
  2. While the initial investment for an oxygen concentrator might be higher than purchasing an oxygen tank, the long-term costs can be lower because there’s no need for refills or tank replacements.
  3. Modern portable oxygen concentrators are designed for mobility, allowing users to carry them during travel, whereas transporting oxygen tanks can be more cumbersome.
  4. Oxygen concentrators tend to require less storage space than a collection of oxygen tanks, especially for patients who need long-term oxygen therapy.
  5. Oxygen tanks can be at risk of leaking or, in rare circumstances, exploding. Oxygen concentrators, on the other hand, produce oxygen on demand, reducing these risks.
  6. Oxygen concentrators often have built-in systems to regulate the flow of oxygen, allowing for more precise delivery tailored to a patient’s needs.
  7. With oxygen tanks, patients or caregivers must regularly schedule refills. Oxygen concentrators negate this necessity, offering more convenience.
  8. Using an oxygen concentrator can reduce the environmental impact associated with the production, transportation, and disposal of oxygen tanks.

However, the choice between an oxygen tank and a concentrator should be made in consultation with a healthcare professional, considering the specific needs and circumstances of the patient.

How Is the Oxygen Delivered?

Patients typically receive the purified oxygen via two primary methods:

  1. Nasal cannula: A lightweight, flexible plastic tubing equipped with two prongs that fit comfortably into the nostrils, delivering oxygen directly to the patient.
  2. Oxygen mask: A mask constructed from pliable plastic that covers the mouth and nose, facilitating a more substantial flow of oxygen when needed.

It is essential to note that an oxygen concentrator should only be used with the explicit prescription and guidance of a healthcare professional. The administration of pure oxygen without medical necessity can potentially lead to adverse pulmonary effects, including long-term lung damage. Thus, it’s paramount that these devices are used in alignment with medical recommendations, to ensure patient safety.

So, How Do Oxygen Concentrators Actually Work?

Let’s look at a step-by-step process of how oxygen concentrators actually work. 

  1. Ambient air intake

The device begins by drawing ambient air (or room air) through a series of specialised filters. A compressor then takes in this filtered air.

  1. First sieve bed nitrogen adsorption

The compressed air is directed into the first molecular sieve bed, typically made from zeolite. This is where the nitrogen molecules are adsorbed*. Due to the porous nature of the sieve beds, they possess an expansive surface area, facilitating substantial nitrogen adsorption. 

*No, that’s not a typo – adsorption is the process in which molecules from a gas or liquid bind to the surface of a solid substance, rather than being absorbed within its volume.

  1. Oxygen concentration

Given that air on earth typically contains 78% nitrogen and 20% oxygen (and 1-2% other gases), once the nitrogen is adsorbed, the resulting gas is predominantly oxygen, concentrated to approximately 90-95%. This oxygen is now primed for patient delivery. 

  1. First sieve bed saturation

The compressor continues to force air into the first molecular sieve bed until it reaches saturation, typically around 20 psi. Once saturated, the sieve bed can no longer adsorb nitrogen efficiently.

  1. Switch valve activation

Just prior to the first sieve bed reaching its saturation point, a switch valve activates, redirecting the compressor’s output to the second molecular sieve bed.

  1. First sieve bed nitrogen venting

While the second sieve bed begins its adsorption cycle, nitrogen trapped in the first sieve bed is released into the atmosphere. Residual nitrogen is released using a back-flush of oxygen from the opposing sieve bed.

  1. Return to first sieve bed

The switch valve reallocates the compressor’s output back to the first sieve bed once the second sieve bed nears saturation, ensuring a continuous oxygen production cycle. This cyclical process of alternating between the two sieve beds ensures a consistent flow of oxygen. The method of alternating between the sieve beds, based on their saturation levels, is scientifically termed as Pressure Swing Adsorption (PSA).

  1. Flowmeter control

Post-PSA, the oxygen output is modulated using a flowmeter, enabling manual adjustment of the flow rate, typically measured in Litres Per Minute (LPM).

  1. Final oxygen delivery

The concentrated oxygen is finally then dispatched through an outlet. Here, it’s typically connected to a humidifier and subsequently to an oxygen delivery apparatus, such as a nasal cannula or mask, ensuring the patient receives appropriately humidified, high-concentration oxygen.

Types of Oxygen Concentrator

The two main types of oxygen concentrators are:

Portable Oxygen Concentrators

These are compact and lightweight, designed for individuals on the move. They can be carried around easily and often come with battery options for cordless use.

Stationary Oxygen Concentrators

Also known as home oxygen concentrators, these are larger devices meant to be used primarily in a fixed location. They typically have a higher capacity and can deliver a continuous flow of oxygen.

hat Conditions Are Regularly Treated With Oxygen Concentrators?

Oxygen concentrators are primarily used to deliver supplemental oxygen to patients with conditions that result in decreased oxygen levels in the blood. Some conditions that can be treated with oxygen concentrators include:

  • Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD): Including emphysema and chronic bronchitis.
  • Asthma: Severe cases can benefit from supplemental oxygen during or after an attack.
  • Pulmonary fibrosis: Scarring or thickening of the lungs that causes shortness of breath.
  • Cystic fibrosis: A genetic disorder affecting the lungs and digestive system.
  • Bronchopulmonary dysplasia: Often seen in premature infants.
  • Heart failure: Particularly in later stages, where the heart’s pumping efficiency is compromised.
  • Sleep apnea: Particularly in cases where the apnea leads to significantly reduced oxygen levels.
  • Interstitial lung disease: A group of conditions that cause inflammation and scarring around the air sacs of the lungs.
  • Pulmonary hypertension: Elevated pressure within the pulmonary arteries.
  • Acute Respiratory Distress Syndrome (ARDS): A sudden, life-threatening lung injury.

While oxygen concentrators can help manage these conditions, it’s essential to note that they should only be used under the guidance and prescription of a healthcare professional.

Choose Zone Medical for All Your Oxygen Therapy Needs

Zone Medical provides equipment for oxygen therapy that meet strict quality and performance standards. As a trusted supplier of medical equipment throughout Australia, we offer devices that are both scientifically advanced and rigorously tested. Healthcare professionals and patients can trust Zone Medical for dependable oxygen concentrator solutions, backed by our comprehensive technical support.