The demand for oxygen to treat COVID-19 patients is increasing in the latest wave of the pandemic, leaving liquid oxygen in short supply for other uses, including water purification and rocket launches. As supplies are redirected to hospitals, other industries scramble to find alternatives.
“We’re actually going to be affected this year by the lack of liquid oxygen for launch,” SpaceX president Gwynne Shotwell said earlier this week. “We’re definitely going to make sure hospitals have the oxygen they need, but for anyone with liquid oxygen to spare, email me. “
While oxygen is extremely common in the atmosphere, hospitals need it in high concentrations to treat patients with damaged respiratory systems, such as people with severe cases of COVID. Here in the United States, getting highly concentrated oxygen from one place to another is usually achieved by cooling the gas in a liquid, which is less bulky but can cause its own problems. Earlier this year, there were shortages in Los Angeles hospitals when the equipment used to turn liquid into gas kept freezing.
Now hospitals are so inundated with COVID-19 patients that the growing demand is causing problems outside of the medical industry.
Rocket companies like SpaceX often use liquid oxygen as a propellant. During a launch, it reacts with fuel (think: rocket-grade kerosene), sending a spaceship hovering. If the shortage persists, it could possibly delay launches – but that has yet to happen. “It’s a risk, but not yet a limiting factor,” said Elon Musk, founder of SpaceX. said on twitter.
The shortage is also exerting indirect pressure on other sectors of the space industry. A United Launch Alliance gas supplier is now focused on dealing with the dire oxygen situation in Florida, a move that could alter plans for a satellite’s launch next month, News reported.
Meanwhile, in Florida, some residents have seen – and in some cases felt – evidence of a lack of liquid oxygen in their water supplies. Water utilities use liquid oxygen to create ozone. When ozone is used to treat water, it can destroy harmful bacteria and viruses and break down compounds that can make water taste or smell unpleasant. Chlorine and other chemicals can perform the same function, but oxygen has fewer byproducts.
In Orlando, shortages have led the local utility to ask residents to stop watering their lawns and conserve water in an effort to expand the supply of liquid oxygen. Unfortunately, the utility saw only a “moderate reduction” in water demand, according to an update released on August 25. Residents have reduced their use from 90 million gallons per day to 82 million gallons per day, but the utility’s goal is to pump only 50 million gallons per day “until LOX supplies come back. to normal in central Florida ”.
In Tampa Bay, the water utility began using bleach instead of oxygen to treat their water. The utility typically uses oxygen to remove hydrogen sulfide, a gas that smells of rotten eggs, from its water. Switching to bleach, the utility warned that “consumers sensitive to changes in taste and odor in drinking water may notice a slight change during this time”, although the quality and safety will remain. unchanged.
Florida has the highest COVID-19 hospitalization rate in the country, according to CNN. In Tampa in particular, an emergency room was so crowded with COVID patients that there was a 12-hour wait.