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A breath of innovation

A breath of innovation

Developed by Brian Dennis and his colleagues, this prototype of a microfluidic device for oxygenating blood is smaller, more efficient, and less intrusive than the machines currently used to keep people with respiratory problems alive.

The heavy, suitcase-sized blood oxygenating machine that keeps people with respiratory problems alive annoys mechanical engineering Associate Professor Brian Dennis. So do oxygen tanks and other cumbersome breathing equipment. He wants something much smaller, more efficient, less intrusive.

Brian Dennis

Brian Dennis, mechanical engineering associate professor

“Something affordable. Something portable,” he says, holding up a wafer a couple of inches square and an eighth of an inch thick. It appears to be nothing more than a clear piece of plastic drilled with small holes, but in the UT Arlington Nanotechnology Research and Teaching Facility it will be fitted with a silicon nitrate nanoporous membrane made by electrical engineering Ph.D. student Bhargav Nabar. The membrane allows gases like oxygen and carbon dioxide to pass, one going one way and one another. Larger liquid molecules—blood and its components, for example—will be unable to pass through.

Dr. Dennis and other University researchers are developing a portable oxygenating device the size of an iPhone. It would be connected to a blood vessel, steadily providing the patient’s blood with new oxygen while disposing of carbon dioxide. Envision a mechanical alveoli, those membranes in lungs that exchange oxygen and carbon dioxide, though it might end up in some ways being more efficient than the body’s design.

“It would be rechargeable like a phone. But instead of needing major daily maintenance like current oxygenating machines, it would only need to be serviced every few months,” Dennis says. “It would help people with COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease), neonatal babies, and people recovering from heart or lung surgery or suffering from any of a number of other respiratory problems.”


The work is funded with a grant from TxMED, a coalition of area universities and hospitals that includes UT Arlington, which was a principal organizer of the group. Dennis has big hopes for the smallish oxygenator.

“The device could revolutionize the management of obstructive pulmonary diseases and provide a continuously monitored solution that enhances patient mobility and quality of life,” he says. “It also has another advantage: It’s minimally invasive.”

UT Arlington will oversee the device’s oxygenation capabilities, toxicity testing, and fabrication. Other key collaborators are faculty members Zeynep Celik-Butler, Digant Davé, and Richard Billo, as well as mechanical engineering Ph.D. student Wei Han. UT Dallas researchers and doctors at Texas Health Presbyterian Dallas/Presbyterian Institute for Minimally Invasive Technology will handle other aspects of the project.

“We’re still in the feasibility stage,” Dennis says. “But if all goes as planned, it’s likely we’ll be looking very soon at various manufacturing possibilities.”