The new virus is conquering the world. The more people who become infected with Sars-CoV-2, the more cases there will be in which severe illness will occur. In these cases, the virus penetrates the lower respiratory tract, causing the body's own defence system to attack the affected lung tissue. Patients suffer from acute symptoms from shortness of breath to outright respiratory distress.
"If half of the surface of the lungs are damaged, it takes twice as much oxygen in the air we breathe to ensure that the body receives an adequate supply," says Wendelin Stark, Professor at the Institute for Chemical and Bioengineering, as well as Head of the Functional Materials Lab at ETH Zurich. Since there are still no effective drugs or a vaccine against COVID-19, those affected must persist in surviving the disease until symptoms subside, usually a period of two to three weeks. "Oxygen can buy time," says Stark.
Masks are not the only bottleneck
It is already clear that there is an increasing shortage of masks and ventilators. Stark fears that the rapid spread of the virus will lead to another bottleneck: “A rigorous analysis shows that more equipment is needed to enrich oxygen. Especially in low-income countries, such as the Middle East or Africa, where there are only a few intensive care units available.”
ETH Zurich researchers are pursuing two different strategies. On the one hand, Samuel Hess and Elia Schneider, both of whom studied under Stark for their doctorates, rely on a novel membrane technology. The membrane enables them to separate molecules of different sizes. "The pore size of our membrane can be precisely adjusted, which makes our technology platform versatile," says Hess. UniSieve AG, an ETH spin-off with which Hess and Schneider commercialize membrane technology, already produces a membrane that separates oxygen from nitrogen. The UniSieve team is now processing this membrane into cartridges that can enrich oxygen using compressed air.