For sufferers of pneumonia, access to concentrated oxygen can be the difference between life and death, but in some parts of the world such supplies aren't always so readily available. Researchers have developed a solar-powered oxygen concentrator and put it to use in hospitals in Uganda, where it is already supplying those desperately in need with round-the-clock care.

Oxygen therapy is a relatively commonplace treatment throughout the developed world, used to address low blood oxygen levels arising from conditions like asthma, heart failure and severe pneumonia, where inflamed lungs prevent the oxygen entering the blood stream. Devices called oxygen concentrators have made treatment possible in the home, but they require electricity to function, so aren't particularly conducive to regions with regular power outages.

Kambuga, Uganda, is one such place and Michael Hawkes, an assistant professor at the University of Alberta's Division of Pediatric Infectious Diseases, has been working to bring children in its hospital with severe pneumonia more reliable care. While oxygen is sometimes delivered in these low-resource settings using cylinders, their supply is anything but abundant.

So Hawkes and his colleagues have built a solar-powered system that provides a constant source of oxygen for the patients. Solar panels on the roof power the oxygen concentrator during the day, which pulls oxygen from the air. Then after the sun goes down, batteries charged via the solar panel keep the concentrator running through the night.

"Solar-powered oxygen is using freely available resources, the sun and air, to treat children with pneumonia in the most remote settings," says Hawkes. "It's very gratifying for a pediatrician doing research in a lower-resource setting to fill a clinical gap and save lives. It's what our work is all about."

The team first installed the systems at hospitals in Kambuga and Jinja, where it was used to treat a group of 28 children suffering from pneumonia. This pilot was successful, with the system delivering power to the concentrator 24 hours a day, so the project was then expanded to a larger trial where it was found to be just as effective as the conventional method of delivering oxygen using cylinders. The researchers are now working towards more installations, with a total of 80 hospitals across Uganda in their sights.

"If we could expand it, could you imagine how many children would have access to life-saving oxygen therapy?" Hawkes wonders. "The challenges are different in these areas of the world, and the innovations need to be different as well."

The solar-powered oxygen system is outlined in a paper published in The International Journal of Tuberculosis and Lung Disease.