A Medical Oxygen Plant derived from technology developed for the LCA Tejas fighter aircraft, installed at a hospital in Arunachal Pradesh

A DRDO invention to supply air to fighter pilots comes in handy in the war against COVID-19

by Sandeep Unnithan 
New Delhi: A Medical Oxygen Plant derived from technology developed for the LCA TEJAS fighter aircraft, installed at a hospital in Arunachal Pradesh.

Soon after the national lockdown was announced, Dr G. Satheesh Reddy, chairman of the DRDO (Defence Research and Development Organisation), began discussions with his scientists to see what resources the organisation could speedily deliver to civilian authorities to fight the pandemic. The list drawn up included personal protection equipment, hand sanitisers and decontamination equipment—military technologies that could be rapidly repurposed for civilian use.

The ace in the pack turned out to be a piece of equipment developed for fighter aircraft that could benefit patients in critical care. The DRDO had developed an onboard oxygen-generation system to provide air to pilots flying India’s indigenous light combat aircraft, TEJAS, and extend mission ranges. This technology, as the DRDO discovered a few years ago, could also be used to supply oxygen to patients hooked onto ventilators. An oxygen-generation system obviates the need for hospitals to frequently replace oxygen cylinders—a single patient consumes one 30-litre cylinder in 36 hours.

The 14.5 kg system, developed by the DRDO’s Bangalore-based laboratory, the Defence Bio-Engineering & Electro Medical Laboratory (DEBEL), works by diverting air from the engine exhaust and filtering the nitrogen out of it to generate 95 per cent pure oxygen. “We started work on the aircraft mounted variant of the OBOGS three years ago and will be fitting it in a production prototype of the TEJAS for trials this year,” says Manimozhi Theodore, director, DEBEL.

The system is already in operation in two military hospitals in Arunachal Pradesh, after the DRDO transferred the technology to the private sector in 2017. A Coimbatore-based private sector firm, Trident Pneumatics, scaled up the technology into a truck-sized ‘medical oxygen plant’. One such plant, running on a three-phase electrical power supply, can simultaneously and continuously supply oxygen to anywhere between 50 and 800 patients. Each plant, two metres tall by one metre wide, weighing in at around 350 kg, has three systems—an oxygen drier, an oxygen generator and an oxygen compressor. The system has a 2,000-litre tank, which stores oxygen in case of an electricity failure.

Trident resumed full operations a week ago after its supply chain was hit by the lockdown. Its owners say they are inundated with inquiries from state governments and hospitals. Its first order is for the installation of a medical oxygen plant at a state hospital in Guwahati in the next four weeks. The size of the plant means space has to be created in hospitals to install it. “We are currently scouting several hospitals, looking at their door sizes and ceiling heights to fit the oxygen plants,” says K.S. Natarajan, managing director, Trident Pneumatics.