All casualties can benefit from this defence research

14:42, June 21, 2011      

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Investment in defence research in the UK to increase battle casualty survival rates has resulted in an oxygen device that could be of great benefit in many emergency situations, following natural disasters or terrorist action.

Administering oxygen to seriously injured casualties within minutes of injury can dramatically increase their survival rates.

Such a lightweight and portable oxygen generator for use by medical assistants in the front line has been developed by Cambridge Design Partnership in the United Kingdom.

Research funding provided by the UK Ministry of Defence (MoD) provides the company with a great opportunity to supply its compact generators for use in disaster relief, search and rescue, and casualty air evacuation operations.

The investment by MoD has therefore resulted in an innovation with considerable humanitarian as well as military benefit.

With the aim of overcoming both logistical and safety issues involved in forward deployment of oxygen, the defence department awarded the contract to the Cambridge firm through the MoD Small Business Research Initiative that seeks to develop innovative technologies for battlefield medicine.

Research by the defence research centre DSTL Porton Down, southern England, confirmed that improved oxygenation can "buy time" in blast injuries. This is of profound military significance, because survival for an hour would enable evacuation.

"Despite strong evidence emerging that forward oxygen deployment can improve survival rates after blast injury, casualties are usually without oxygen before being evacuated by helicopter," said Stephen Lamb, consultant at Cambridge Design Partnership (CDP).

"This is because frontline personnel may not have access to vehicle support and the pressurised oxygen cylinders are heavy to transport and vulnerable to ballistic threats. Although there are portable oxygen generators available, these are very power hungry and require heavy batteries," he added.

"At CDP, one of our core strengths is miniaturising technology to make it portable. Our concept is based around a lightweight oxygen generator with an integral micro-diesel engine. Diesel is much more energy dense than batteries and can be scavenged if necessary from ground-based vehicles or local sources," said Stephen Lamb.

The key innovation is how the engine and oxygen generator are integrated to reduce weight and improve efficiency.

The solution is a compact, lightweight and safe source of oxygen that can run for hours on less than a litre of diesel fuel. There is also the potential to use the compact engine as an electrical power source. This could power emergency lighting as well as power for patient monitoring instruments.

Stephen Lamb and his team have successfully demonstrated the prototype system and are confident they can miniaturise the system further, based on their previous experience of developing medical equipment for civilian ambulance crews and work in producing miniature battery packs.

Oxygen loss caused by blood loss can quickly result in hypothermia. At the same time, coagulation is reduced causing the patient to bleed even more.

As a result the longer a patient has to wait for hospital care, the more crucial is the need for rapid administration of oxygen.

This can be especially important in remote areas following natural disasters or major accidents. In addition, explosions - whether caused by terrorist action or industrial incident - can cause a condition known as blast lung in which the breathing function is compromised, again depriving the patient of much-needed oxygen.

Many of the logistical problems met in combat are common in disaster situations, and Cambridge Design Partnership is in discussion with disaster relief charities and other groups including the UK's National Health Service to provide a solution.

CDP is talking to technology developers of subsystems to make the product even smaller, lighter and more efficient. These include the UK company Top Out that has experience of making systems for mountaineers that deliver oxygen with exceptional efficiency.

At the heart of CDP's system is a miniature diesel engine, avoiding the need for the heavy batteries found in conventional portable systems; this pumps air through an oxygen extraction unit giving a flow rate of three litres a minute to the patient.

"The beauty of this system is that it is easily scaleable to provide higher flow rates if required," said CDP researcher Richard Bown.

The prototype unit weighs 2.4 kilograms, measures 100 millimetres by 200mm by 250mm and consumes 50 grams of diesel an hour. Other possible fuels include butane. Under the terms of the MoD contract, CDP retains full intellectual property rights in the system.

Source: British Embassy in China
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