How Does an Oxygen Concentrator Work? | The Latest 2021 Guide

Sized a bit bigger than a PC monitor, an oxygen concentrator is a medical device meant to extract oxygen from the atmospheric air. The ambient air is made of 78% nitrogen, 21% oxygen and 1% the mix of other gasses. So, How Does an Oxygen Concentrator Work?

Oxygen concentrators are highly helpful in meeting the oxygen needs of patients with acute medical conditions like Asthma, Pneumonia, Respiratory distress syndrome (RDS), and Bronchopulmonary dysplasia (BPD) caused by Covid -19.

In people diagnosed with Chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), the lung damage makes it difficult for the lungs to absorb oxygen resulting in troubled breathing. In all these cases, an oxygen concentrator can be a viable treatment.      

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With the hospitals in the country running out of oxygen and a huge number of patients being recommended home isolation, the Covid-19 pandemic scenario has seen the sharp surge in demand for oxygen concentrators. 

After having reviewed an oxygen concentrator based on it’s design, function, usages, internal components and much more; my team and I found that:

An oxygen concentrator works by filtering the atmospheric air, separates oxygen, disposes of the nitrogen and supplies the oxygen for medical use. Most importantly, the oxygen concentrator filters out the dust and bacteria. It does this by compressing air and pushing it through a molecular sieve.

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How Does an Oxygen Concentrator Work?

Oxygen concentrator overview

The main purpose of an oxygen concentrator is to boost up oxygen levels in the blood of patients diagnosed with low levels of oxygen concentration. This is a simple device that can be powered either by plugging into an electrical outlet or connecting to a battery. The adapter accompanying a portable oxygen concentrator facilitates using them while driving.

Nitrogen constitutes the majority of the atmospheric air estimated at 78%. The rest of the air is made of Oxygen (21%) and other gases (1%). The principal function of an oxygen concentrator is to filter out the nitrogen to output oxygen with a purity level of 90 – 95%. An oxygen concentrator works on the principle of Pressure Swing Absorption and hence it is able to deliver 95% pure oxygen.

Oxygen concentrators can bring the much needed relief to patients suffering from low oxygen levels (hypoxemia) and hence they are in huge demand while millions are being treated for Covid-19.

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Components of an oxygen concentrator

The main components of an oxygen concentrator include the following.

  • A line of air filters

A line of air filters are arranged in succession to filter out different kinds of impurities found in the atmospheric air that the machine sucks in to process oxygen.

  • Air compressor

The air compressor pushes the air into the device and sends it to the molecular sieve beds.

  • Molecular sieve beds

In an oxygen concentrator, we can find two molecular sieve beds. The purpose of these beds is to trap the nitrogen present in the air before conducting the resulting air further through the device.   

  • Switch valve

The purpose of the switch valve is to alternate the output of the compressor between the two filters (molecular sieve beds) also termed as pressure equalizing reservoirs. 

  • Oxygen outlet

Oxygen outlet is the opening seen at the other end of the device that is meant to deliver the purified oxygen to the patient. 

  • Flowmeter

The flowmeter lets the user set the oxygen flow in LPM (liters per minute).

  • Other components

Portable units come with an AC or DC charger and battery. The other components are the tubing, nasal cannula, and face mask. 

How it works

We can explain the working of an oxygen concentrator in four simple steps.

To being the process, the device sucks in the ambient air into it. This air is passed through a line of filters during when dust, bacteria and other particulates are removed. Since the air is brought in through a compressor, it is found highly compressed.

The compressor pushes the air through the molecular sieve bed filters which absorb huge quantities of nitrogen gas. After the sieve filters remove the nitrogen, the resulting air that is made of concentrated oxygen and a small percentage of other gasses is sent into the product tank.

When the air fills the first molecular sieve bed, the flow switch routes the air to the second molecular sieve bed. Since there is alternating pumping of air through the two sieve beds (Pressure Swing Adsorption technology or PSA), a continuous flow of air outside the machine is ensured. The users can manually adjust the flow as per their LPM (Liters per minute) requirement.

How do concentrators differ from oxygen cylinders?

Oxygen cylinders are metal tanks filled with pressurized oxygen. They deliver oxygen through a line of tubing connected to them at one end and fitted to the oxygen mask or nasal cannula at the other end. For personal use, oxygen cylinders are generally mounted on to wheel based devices or trolleys facilitating an easy transport. 

Oxygen concentrators dispense the oxygen in the same way as an oxygen cylinder does through the patient’s oxygen mask or cannula. The main difference however lies in the fact that a concentrator prepares oxygen from the atmospheric air and delivers it. Hence a continuous supply of oxygen is assured without any need to refill or replace the tank. There are larger and compact models available in oxygen concentrators for different applications. 

Oxygen concentrator for different medical conditions

When there is a need to provide supplementary oxygen to the patients experiencing chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), oxygen concentrator comes in to use. In higher concentrations, oxygen concentrators can help manage pulmonary edema and severe chronic hypoxemia (the symptom faced during Covid-19 disease.

Oxygen concentrators can also be used as an adjunct treatment to remedy severe sleep apnea. In this case, it is used along with a continuous positive airway pressure unit. 

Whenever there is a need to provide a stationary source of oxygen over a long term, oxygen concentrators prove highly useful. Typically, they can help address the needs of patients requiring long term oxygen therapy (LTOT) at their homes.

Steps to operate an oxygen concentrator

 Ensure that the oxygen concentrator is properly set up by an expert.

The unit must be plugged into a source of electrical power. The concentrator is turned on and the oxygen flow rate is manually adjusted as per the doctor’s prescription.

A mask or nasal cannula is fixed to the patient.

The oxygen concentrator will remain turned on for the recommended amount of time. Typically, this can last for days or weeks depending on the case. 

An important point to note while using an oxygen concentrator

Due to its compact nature and long-term economy, an oxygen concentrator is a great choice. When you use an oxygen concentrator, ensure that you have a fully charged backup battery. If the battery fails due to some reasons, the concentrator might stop working until it is charged once again.

If the patient needs continuous oxygen supply, this situation can turn dangerous. A backup battery can help avoid this issue. In case the patients are on oxygen therapy for severe acute medical conditions, it is also advised to have an oxygen cylinder in reserve to face emergency situations if anything must go wrong with the oxygen concentrator.  

Oxygen concentrator advantages

The best aspects of an oxygen concentrator are the convenience and portability it assures. It weighs less and is not bulky. 

The price you need to pay for an oxygen concentrator is upfront and hence you do not have to worry about any recurring expenses if the patient is on oxygen therapy over long periods of time.

Though the initial investment in oxygen concentrators can be a large one, you can also think of getting them on long term rentals to save money. 

Oxygen cylinders can leak and the air saturated with oxygen can pose the risk of fire. Such fires can be very difficult to extinguish since the fires induced by oxygen are hotter than other kids of fire. Oxygen concentrators produce only as much oxygen as needed and hence there are no risks of leaks and flammability. 

As long as the oxygen concentrator has the availability of power, it will keep producing oxygen round the clock on all days over many years. Since oxygen concentrator extracts oxygen directly from the air, the supply is rather continuous, instant and unlimited. 

What can go wrong with oxygen concentrators?

At times, oxygen concentrators might fail to produce the recommended levels of oxygen due to many reasons like problems in the air intake system, failure of the sieve-control valves, and contaminated materials in the sieve. 

If the water vapor content of the room air is more, it can impact the adsorption of nitrogen by the molecular sieve beds as the vapor can get in through the leaks found on the internal tubing. If large quantities of water vapor enters the sieve beds and contaminate them, the gas delivered will only be the room air.

Some patients might experience irritation due to the nasal cannula. Excess oxygen can support or promote combustion. Hence, the concentrator must never be kept near a source of ignition or combustible materials.

To manage power failures, it is necessary to have a reserve tank for compressed oxygen and a regulator.    

How to choose an oxygen concentrator?

Your choice of the right oxygen concentrator must take into account the following aspects.

  • How do you plan to use it?

Standard type of oxygen concentrators are a good choice for your bed room or living room as they come with handles or wheels enabling short distance portability. For travels or use during more active jobs, portable oxygen concentrators will work the best. They come with convenient bags and cases for carrying and they are light in weight.

  • How much oxygen will you need?

There is no set capacity for an oxygen concentrator. Hence it can save money in the long run when you can use large quantities of oxygen without having to worry about tank replacement and refills. Go for the device that enables the recommended flow rate. 

  • Do you travel a lot?

Compact and stationary concentrators are commonly used in homes and single rooms in clinics. Portable concentrators are recommended for those who wish to carry it while travelling.

  • How much can you afford to spend on them?

Oxygen cylinders are economical. If you need to depend on oxygen over a long time, concentrators are economical despite the initial high costs. For travels and active lifestyles, portable concentrators will work the best. 

  • What additional components do you need?

Decide whether you need some add-ons and accessories like transport accessories, wheel-based mounts, shoulder bags, accessories to attach the units to wheel chairs, oxygen tubing, nasal cannula, and oxygen masks. 

The market for concentrators

The demand for oxygen concentrators has gone up sharply over the recent years. Experts say the demand has surged from 40,000 per year to 40,000 per month. The forum coordinator of AIMED, an association of the medical device industry Dr. Rajiv Nath says the demand for oxygen concentrators can touch 1,000 to 2,000 per day. It is said there are no enough number of oxygen concentrator manufacturers to meet the surging demand. 


Do you need a prescription for an oxygen concentrator?

Oxygen concentrators are medical grade oxygen treatment devices. Medical oxygen is a highly concentrated substance and is classified as a medical substance.

Therefore, you will certainly need a medical prescription while trying to buy one. When you face a medical condition necessitating a home oxygen therapy, consult a doctor and gather a well-documented evidence of the medical condition that qualifies you for the same. 

Does an oxygen concentrator produce pure oxygen?

Oxygen concentrator produces oxygen only from the ambient air. The air in the atmosphere is made of 78% nitrogen, 21% oxygen and 1% other gases. The molecular sieve beds fitted in the concentrator filters the air and releases the nitrogen back into the air.

The oxygen outputted by the device might contain only gases other than oxygen. Hence we can say, the oxygen produced by a concentrator is 90 to 95% pure which must work for treating most medical conditions requiring oxygen supplementation.

Oxygen concentrators can suit patients diagnosed with 85% or more oxygen saturation levels. They are never recommended for patients admitted to the ICU.

What are the side effects of being on oxygen?

Under general conditions, oxygen therapy given with the aid of an oxygen concentrator is safe. Some side effects to expect during an oxygen treatment include dry nose, bloody nose, morning headaches, and tiredness.

Oxygen also carries a fire risk. Hence you must never smoke while on oxygen therapy. Also, you must ensure there are no flammable materials in the room where the concentrator is in use. 

Does using oxygen make your lungs weaker?

Unfortunately, some studies show that breathing in 100% oxygen over long periods can bring about some changes in the lungs. Such changes can be potentially harmful too. To stay on oxygen therapy over a long time, experts recommend lowering the oxygen concentration levels to 40% to prevent the side effects of oxygen therapy.

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Kishen is the Editor-in-chief of Best India Products and is also our top reviewer. He loves testing product quality and is extremely fond of accessories that bring value to the user. Check out for all of his Reviews and Guides!

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