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Breathing easier: Chemical engineers Mayuresh Kothare and Shivaji Sircar take on COPD

In 2012, chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) was named the 3rd leading cause of death in the world. A respiratory passageway-obstructing disease, COPD causes constant breathing problems, similar to those afflicted with cystic fibrosis. Fortunately, COPD awareness is rising, and the technologies used for its treatment are constantly evolving.

COPD patients often use battery-operated medical oxygen concentrators (MOC), which frees them from the inconvenience of huge pressurized containers and obstructive breathing apparatus. A MOC typically weighs somewhere between six and eight pounds, and supplies a significant flow of oxygen by enriching a small, highly-concentrated amount into breathable air.

A team led by Mayuresh Kothare, the R. L. McCann Professor and chair of chemical and biomolecular engineering, and Shivaji Sircar, adjunct professor in the same department, has spent the last few years seeking to improve upon this technology.

Recently, the team has landed a highly-competitive grant from the National Science Foundation’s Partnership for Innovation (PFI) program to improve upon their patent-pending technology that further optimizes MOCs for future users.

Titled "Miniaturization of Medical Oxygen Concentrators for Portable and Home Medical Applications," the 18-month, $200,000 award supports ongoing research and development of this technology toward a working prototype. Along with additional NSF funding, other sources of support include Invacare Inc., the QED Science Center of Philadelphia, and the Life Sciences Greenhouse of Central Pennsylvania.

The team sees the MOC as something beyond just a treatment, and hopes that its innovative two-in-one tank design will impact other oxygen-delivery needs in industry. If successful, the MOC could easily provide fully usable and transportable oxygen for ships and aircraft, both of which are moving towards increased oxygen optimization.

For COPD sufferers, Kothare and team are taking a decidedly patient-centric approach.

"Currently, the separation column itself is about the size of a large eggplant." Kothare explains. "The system includes various tubes, electronic cables, buttons and circuit boards that stretch around its perimeter and create a difficult experience for its users. The biggest challenge we’re addressing right now is making it smaller and less cumbersome, without losing any qualities necessary for full FDA-approval."

Like many of Lehigh’s most significant research endeavors, students have been actively and substantively involved in the project from the very beginning. Alison Graf and Alex Lincoln (both B.S. Chemical Engineering, 2011) were among the first to experiment with the challenge of MOC compacting in 2010, and Chin-Wen Wu, currently a PhD student in Chemical Engineering, is working on the ongoing project along with postdoctoral scholar Rama Rao Vemula.

Over the past few years, six additional undergraduate students, one postdoc, one doctoral student and one master's student from Lehigh Technical Entrepreneurship program have been involved in obtaining training and education from this project.

-Simona Galant '18 is a writer with the Dean’s Office of the P.C. Rossin College of Engineering and Applied Science.

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