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Oxygen concentrators: A new industry opens up for MSMEs

One positive fallout of the Covid-19 crisis is the creation of new markets for products such as masks, sanitizers and PPEs. But more important, and perhaps less recognized, is the market for oxygen concentrators.

This product is nothing hi-tech; India, with its capacity for frugal engineering, can become a low-cost manufacturer of it. To illustrate, imported concentrators sell at around ₹80,000- ₹1 lakh; in contrast, ONGC, under its CSR program, is buying one lakh concentrators (with flow meters, which otherwise cost ₹4,000) at prices of ₹47,000 for 5-litre-capacity machines and ₹65,000 for 10-liter machines—including taxes. And, the scale effect has not quite set in—when the concentrators are manufactured in large scale, prices would come further down.

A chat with Dr Sanjay Dhole, co-founder of Chemdist, a Pune-based start-up that has won an initial order for 4,000 units from ONGC, is revealing. Chemdist had been working on oxygen concentrators for over a year, meaning to supply to Defense, for use in oxygen-deficient, high altitude locations. Then came the 2nd wave of Covid-19, suddenly opening up a huge market. “Right now, we can make 5,000 units a month,” Dhole told Business Line, but the company is ramping up production so as to be able to make 7,500 a month by July. That, of course, is for starters. Eventually, Chemdist will be making 1,000 units a day.
Suppy chain and demand

An oxygen concentrator is a pretty simple product. It essentially consists of a compressor and two cylinders containing metal-coated zeolite. Zeolites are aluminosilicates—minerals which are intrinsically porous. The micro-pores make it a good ‘molecular sieve’–it filters out large molecules and lets smaller molecules pass through. When compressed air is passed through a cylinder of zeolite, the nitrogen molecules, which are bigger, get ‘adsorbed’ onto the zeolite; what comes out of the other end is air rich in oxygen. When the zeolite in one cylinder is saturated, the other takes over, giving time to the first to let off the nitrogen and rejuvenate itself. Coating zeolites with metals enhances efficiency. Lithium is the preferred metal, but sodium, magnesium and calcium are fine too.

Why are we importing such an easy-to-make product? Because there is no supply chain in India, because of low demand all these years, explains Dhole. While the product itself is not too hi-tech, there is a lot of fine-tuning to be made. Dhole points out that 72 components go into the making of a concentrator. Now, if you change the zeolite from lithium coated to, say, magnesium, several of the components—chiefly the pneumatic valves—need to be correspondingly tweaked.

But things have changed in the recent few weeks. “The supply chain is shaping up well,” Dhole said.

“Several innovations are happening with speed,” says Prof Ashutosh Sharma, Secretary, Department of Science and Technology, Government of India. “Several parts, like valves and oil-less silent, miniaturized compressors are being developed,” he told Business Line.

ONGC has kick-started the market, giving opportunity to MSMEs, without going through the rigmarole of tenders. Many companies, including the PSU, BEL are getting into the fray.
Scientists at IISER, Bhopal, have designed a concentrator and produced a prototype.

Dr Mitradip Bhattacharjee of the Department of Electrical Engineering, who was involved in the design of the product, says the institute is looking for partners for manufacture. He told Business Line that since the product was designed using open-source technology, it would be very affordable.

Beyond Covid-19
Is there a market beyond Covid-19? Dhole says there is. He observes that while large hospitals would prefer larger ( units, which work on the same principle, those in remote areas would want bedside concentrators. Even bigger hospitals would like to keep a few.

However, the biggest market would come from households. Dhole sees the concentrator becoming a household appliance, just as water purifiers—especially, in families that have elderly people. Of course, there are huge export opportunities. Chemdist is flooded with enquiries from abroad. The Hindu BusinessLine