Oxygen engineer wins FRDC award

An innovation award recognises potential uses in aquaculture for new oxygen generation technology

By Tom Bicknell

Dr Kim Ritman (Chief Scientist, ABARES), Dr Patrick Hone (Executive Director, FRDC), Mr Kevin Rassool, Anne Ruston (Senator for South Australia and Assistant Minister for Agriculture and Water Resources), Ron Boswell (Chairman of the Board, FRDC).
Photo: Steve Keou

What does a child suffering pneumonia in Uganda have in common with a Barramundi raised in a tank in Western Sydney? They both need concentrated oxygen, preferably without a big electricity bill.

Addressing that common need has been the focus of the FREO2 Foundation, a company that evolved from research at the University of Melbourne to develop a water-powered oxygen concentrator called the Siphon.

In recognition of the promise of this work for aquaculture, FREO2 engineer Kevin Rassool won the FRDC-sponsored award at the 2017 Science and Innovation Awards for Young People in Agriculture, Fisheries and Forestry. The award was presented at the Australian Bureau of Agricultural and Resource Economics and Sciences Outlook conference in March and includes funding to assist his research.

Kevin Rassool is in charge of the Siphon’s expansion into the aquaculture industry, but the technology was initially developed to treat pneumonia in developing nations with support from partner organisation Saving Lives at Birth. Pneumonia is the leading killer of children in much of the developing world, in large part because of unreliable supplies of concentrated oxygen, which is the primary treatment method.

“The Siphon was conceptualised to provide oxygen to communities that don’t have electricity,” says Kevin Rassool. “Ninety-five per cent of pneumonia deaths are in developing countries. They often don’t have electricity, but they do often have a stream.”

By directing running water through a raised pipe the Siphon creates a vacuum, which is the power source used to concentrate the atmospheric air into oxygen. The vacuum ‘squeezes’ air through a molecular sieve, effectively trapping all the nitrogen and removing it from the air. The resultant gas is up to 95 per cent pure oxygen. It uses no electricity, and the only ongoing cost is replacement or refurbishment of the cheap molecular sieve after five to 10 years.

Closer to home, the technology is of interest to aquaculture operators.

Dissolved oxygen level in water is one of the key limiting factors for intensive aquaculture, and many operations use concentrated oxygen diffusers. Concentrated oxygen is sourced either bottled from industrial suppliers, or produced on-site using an oxygen generator. But traditional oxygen generators use a large amount of electricity and are subject to power outages.

Kevin Rassool at Green Camel’s facility in Sydney.

In 2016, the FREO2 Foundation formed a partnership with Green Camel, an aquaponics farm in Western Sydney that produces Barramundi. Kevin Rassool, who manages the partnership, says the Siphon offers Green Camel a cost-efficient and reliable alternative to the traditional oxygen supply options.

“Green Camel currently gets liquid oxygen produced off-site. It’s an ongoing cost, and it’s quite expensive,” he says.

The Siphon system, which FREO2 is installing in 2017 at Green Camel’s facility at the University of Sydney, will be powered by ‘salvaged’ energy from Green Camel’s wastewater system, meaning minimal ongoing costs.

The expanded use into aquaculture is expected to help drive the Siphon’s future development. “We were really happy when we started speaking to people in aquaculture, because we see it as complementary to our work on the medical side,” says Kevin Rassool. “From a technical perspective the system is almost identical, so any innovation or advancement we have in aquaculture can be directly related back to our medical system, and vice versa.”

For an engineer driven by health outcomes in the developing world, Kevin Rassool sees more productive aquaculture as part of a broader systems approach to health. “If we can increase food security, especially protein in developing countries, we can reduce sickness. 

More information

FREO2 Foundation, www.freo2.or