A breath of fresh air in the fight against pneumonia

Doctors from around the world are eager to get a hold of Bryn Sobott's new oxygen device. Elizabeth Finkel finds out why.

Sobott heard the statistics on pneumonia deaths and got to work. – Jaime Murcia

For the past two years Bryn Sobott’s mother thought her son, a 33-year-old particle physicist at the University of Melbourne, had gone mad. He spent his weekends in a creek, covered in leeches, testing a contraption that would concentrate oxygen.

She changed her mind in July when Sobott and colleagues Roger Rassool and Jim Black were among 18 inventors awarded a grant worth up to US$250,000 by the Gates Foundation and other supporters. More than 400 contestants had entered.

Sobott’s contraption tackles pneumonia, the biggest killer of children under five. Every year the disease claims 1.2 million young lives, mainly in the developing world. Many would be saved with access to oxygen but die for lack of a reliable source of electricity to filter it from the air.

Two years ago, Sobott attended a conference organised by Black, from the Nossal Institute for Global Health, who had brought together doctors working in needy areas and technological wizards. Sobott heard the statistics on pneumonia deaths and of the need for cheap, reliable electricity at isolated clinics in Papua New Guinea. He got to work.

Physicists being physicists, Sobott and Rassool reanalysed the problem. Rather than design a failsafe generator, they decided to filter oxygen directly from the air. PNG has lots of running water – why not use it in a device that creates the necessary vacuum pressure? Their Fully Renewable Energy Oxygen device is made of just pipes and water, anybody can operate it, and it will cost less than $1,000.

Eager doctors from around the globe have contacted Sobott. “It’s been hard to sleep at night,” he says. “But it still needs a lot of rocket science before we are ready to hand it over.”

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