Julia Reed-Betts
Julia Reed-Betts
High School Third Place Winner - 2013 Essential to Our Health Essay Contest
Naples, Florida
Oxygen Tanks Are Not Only A Tool for Scuba Divers

“You have COPD.” Being informed you have acquired a life-threatening disease know as Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease often leaves a patient feeling confused and limited as they exit their doctor’s office. The main cause of COPD and Emphysema is smoking and second hand tobacco smoke. (World Health Organization, 2012) This gives evidence to why COPD is under-diagnosed. These illnesses are progressive and not identified until patients reach their elder years, therefore it is difficult to cure the disease. So far this disease has not had significant research implemented in terms of prevention (other than education); however vital engineering practices have vastly improved treatment.

COPD is a lung disease that affects millions; it is estimated that deaths will increase 30% after ten years unless immediate action to limit risk occurs. (Bowler, 2012) Most people either have one or both of the following diseases grouped under COPD: emphysema and or chronic bronchitis. These diseases correspond with the long term obstructions of air flow through the lungs evident in COPD patients. Specifically, these diseases generate damage in the alveoli’s walls creating a smaller number of air sacs that the lungs can transport oxygen through. The lungs are a key part of survival, and as a means of compensation, swollen airways produce mucus. 

Improving the quality of life, this is the main goal of physicians and engineers studying COPD. Because a cure has not been discovered for this illness, treatment has the largest impact on patient recovery. Although there are many engineering feats in the medical world, the plethora of knowledge, which aids the progression of large-scale treatments due to persistent engineers, helps to motivate every patient facing COPD.

Oxygen tanks are not only a tool for scuba divers. Biomedical engineers, physicians, and other medical personnel use oxygen tanks for treatment and have been re-modifying their designs to suit patient’s needs. (U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, 2012) Oxygen was first used during therapeutic treatment by the firm Draeger Inc.; this marked the first time oxygen was bought and sold on a large scale. These respiratory corrective devices were offered in 1902, however J.S. Haldane is acknowledged to have “founded” modern oxygen therapy in 1917.” (Strätling M, 2003) The function of oxygen in therapeutic use was a turning point in the advancement and treatment of people with COPD.

The production of oxygen cylinders begins with a solitary piece of aluminum or brushed steel that is cut to the desired size by a conveyor belt. In cases involving design and regimentation of the piece, saws are often employed for more specific utilization. The metal sheet is then heated to 1000 degrees Fahrenheit and rolled to a cup shape by a press. The mouth of the cup is sealed during this stage, and all amalgamation metals are put into the furnace. Once the metals have cooled, the second heating process combines the additional metals with the cylinder to enhance its strength. The furnace is heated to 350 degrees Fahrenheit during this process. (Diamond, 1999-2013)

The next step for the cylinder is very important when considering the impact of the engineers, because multiple trials and meticulous level of speculation and change occur at this point. “The cylinder is placed under hydrostatic testing.” (Diamond, 1999-2013) This ensures that the cylinder can withstand heavy amounts of pressure. According to medical standards, if the cylinder expands greater than its regulated size by the medical professional or engineer during the first 30 seconds, the unused tank is recycled. Once the cylinder meets all requirements, its surface is sanded to a smooth finish, painted, and appropriate caps or valves are attached. Currently, engineers are furthering design and technological innovation by creating valuable caps and valves. For instance, the introduction of portable oxygen tanks is made possible by a valve that preserves oxygen.

Another improvement in the design of oxygen tanks has to do with the filling of the oxygen. When compressed air travels through an area, a small piston pulls up and the air is squeezed up a valve. This inflates the area. Consequently, the air’s pressure and temperature must be lowered when liquefied. The expansion engine, or the area that the liquid area inhabits, it is boiled to excrete nitrogen, and separate argon and neon as well as oxygen. The reason why nitrogen is used instead of oxygen is because nitrogen’s boiling point is lower than that of oxygen’s. Now, the air rich in oxygen is transported through an insulated tank to the cylinder. To seal in the highly pressurized gases, lubricants made of rubber and oils were developed so gas does not leak past the piston. Fluoridated materials, such as Teflon, are used to guarantee oxygen does not escape into homes or other places and cause plausible ignition of flames. (Smith, 2005)

Currently engineers are being faced with multiple problems regarding oxygen use. For instance, consumers are complaining that determining whether the oxygen cylinder is full or empty can be a hassle. This has to deal with mishaps in staff, but because engineers are educated to solve a wide range of problems to help the patient, they are equipped to tackle almost everything. That is what is uniquely extraordinary about the engineering profession: the constant challenge to solve a problem with global implications. The creators of our generation were able to design a pressure regulation device to accompany the tank. Simple in nature but very effective when judging pressure, this effortless modification lessens the stress and anxiety humans face.

Although engineers have developed simple and very complex answers, there are some issues that still need further examination. For example, specific cylinders such as the ferromagnetic oxygen can unintentionally be turned into missiles when immersed in an MRI environment and drawn into the magnet. Also, if fractures occur to the cylinder escaping gas can thrust the cylinder and cause severe effects. To put this in perspective, the force of a cylinder is strong enough to infiltrate cinder block walls. Additional issues have included incorrectly identifying cylinders. This can easily be corrected by adding a universal color scheme established by medical professionals. Engineers can initiate the production of varying cylinder color to clearly identify the content of the cylinder. Even though this might sound simplistic, there are several cases studying that give evidence otherwise. “To be truly effective, CGA/ECRI recommends that the label be overwhelming in size.” (U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs, 2012)

For patients battling COPD, there are three options available in terms of oxygen systems. The first is a concentrator, which is readily used throughout the house. My father, who currently lives with COPD, used to use this method prior to being weaned of the oxygen. I am therefore very accustomed to the loud raucous noise it generates as it take oxygen from the air, condenses it, and delivers it to the patient. The next system, which I have discussed, is the compressed gas system that includes the aluminum or steel shelled tanks. This however is a very bulky model. Engineers have been able to dissect the design of this system and have created the liquid system which includes a large immobile unit and a portable device,“with a small lightweight tank.” (Ann Mullen, 2012) You’re oxygen company can stop by to change your unit, and this system is very flexible for changing needs of patients.

What my father and many patients have really enjoyed are the portable oxygen concentrators. This combines the effectively designed oxygen conserving valve, with the lightness of the liquid oxygen tank. What is ingenious about the portable oxygen concentrators, however, is that they add confidence to a patient’s persona. A man or women in their late sixties is told they have a breathing disease. They are told they must be hooked up to oxygen; they don’t know for how long, but they comply. Every day they are immobilized and embarrassed to walk out of the house with a massive oxygen tank. The portable tank gives each patient their freedom back. Without the worry and limitation of old tanks, they can take the next step in rehabilitation with self-assurance.

The work of engineers is inter-disciplined, to promote a healthier population. By optimizing a patient’s comfort through specific mechanical techniques, the road to treatment can be easier and more attainable for people. Once a patient makes the first step, the likelihood of increased physical activity and increased breathing improves. It is only with the desire of the engineers to mold, create, mend, and experiment again and again that medical advancements are possible. For the patient that is told they must live a life with COPD, the initial reaction can be an understanding and comforted one. Patients will be able to envision their path towards a healthy, active lifestyle more clearly thanks to the rigorous efforts of engineers.


-Ann Mullen, R. (2012, June 9). Oxygen Therapy. Retrieved January 23, 2013, from National Jewish Health: http://www.nationaljewish.org/healthinfo/medications/lung-diseases/treatments/oxygen-therapy/

-Bowler, D. (2012, December 9). Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD): Overview. Retrieved January 22, 2013, from National Jewish Helath: http://www.nationaljewish.org/healthinfo/conditions/copd-chronic-obstructivepulmonary- disease/

-Diamond, G. (1999-2013). How Are Oxygen Cylinders Made? Retrieved January 23, 2013, from eHow: http://www.ehow.com/how-does_5022450_oxygen-cylinders-made.html

-Smith, E. (2005, February 17). Archives of Ask A Scientist! Retrieved January 5, 2013, from Cornell Center for Materials Research: An NSF MRSEC: http://www.ccmr.cornell.edu/education/ask/index.html?quid=401

-Strätling M, S. P. (2003, January 38). [The centennial of oxygen-therapy (1902 - 2002) -- reassessing its history. Retrieved January 5, 2013, from US National Library of Medicine National Institutes of Health: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/12522724

-U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. (2012, December 13). Oxygen (Compressed Gas) Cylinder Hazard Summary. Retrieved January 20, 2013, from VA National Center for Patient Safety:http://www.patientsafety.gov/SafetyTopics/O2Cylinder.html

-World Health Organization. (2012, November). Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD). Retrieved January 24, 2013, from World Health Organization: http://www.who.int/mediacentre/factsheets/fs315/en/index.html