Oxygen sensors: a history

The history of oxygen, and eventually, oxygen sensors, is a fascinating one. Right from the discovery of oxygen, to the understanding of how to use oxygen sensors to deliver oxygen to patients with chronic lung disease, the journey to produce the sensors we use today was a long one.

How it all began

Oxygen was first discovered by Carl Wilhelm Scheele, a German-Swedish chemist, in 1771. Scheele produced the gas, which he named “fire air”, by heating a number of elements, including silver carbonate, magnesium nitrate, and mercuric oxide. Unfortunately, it was Scheele’s discovery that would eventually lead to his premature death – breathing in mercuric oxides gradually caused mercury poisoning, not that anyone knew this at the time.

It was Antoine Lavoisier who used Scheele’s research to carry out his own experiments, using slightly higher-tech lab equipment to produce oxygen. Lavoisier named the gas “oxygen”, and that was how it was to be known from that moment on.

Using oxygen for medical purposes

It didn’t take long at all for scientists to realise that oxygen therapy could be used to treat patients with respiratory medical conditions. In 1978, Thomas Beddoes collaborated with James Watt to use oxygen in his Pneumatic Institute, based in Bristol, England, to treat asthma and other respiratory issues. Unfortunately, an outbreak of typhus across the UK led to the closure of the clinic, but the uses of oxygen were not forgotten.

By the time the 20th century came around, the clinical use of oxygen had rapidly grown in popularity. Scientists were still learning more about how it could help patients, and by 1907, applications to more easily provide patients were being invented, like the nasal catheter.

The introduction of sensors

It wasn’t until several years later that medical oxygen sensor devices were added to machines that delivered oxygen to patients, such as ventilators. The sensors could detect how much oxygen a patient had in the blood, and thus, how much they were absorbing in the air they breathed in.

This then allowed healthcare professionals to adjust the oxygen concentration of these machines to ensure that patients were receiving the right dose of oxygen to survive.

Discovery of oxygen for lung disease

By 1966, medical research around the use of oxygen for treating lung diseases and disorders was becoming more advanced. One study found that a lack of oxygen was specifically related to a decreased chance of survival in patients with COPD.

Later on, another study found that oxygen therapy directly correlated to increased ability to breathe, better quality of life and improved exercise capacity.

Oxygen sensors today

Nowadays, oxygen sensors have been developed to work as effectively as a human being in helping to deliver the right amount of oxygen to a patient.

They’re tiny and unconstructive, and can even be used in portable devices for remote application. The COVID-19 outbreak has proved the importance of oxygen sensors, as they help ventilators to perform their essential duties. With such a long history behind them, it’s likely that oxygen sensors will continue to develop going forward. 

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