President Barack Obama has announced that Norman R. McCombs, a University at Buffalo alumnus who developed an oxygen production system that spawned a billion dollar industry and helped ease the pain of millions suffering from lung diseases, was awarded the National Medal of Technology and Innovation, the U.S. government's highest honor for technological achievement.
McCombs, of Tonawanda, is the senior vice president of research and development at Amherst-based AirSep Corp., a company he has been associated with since its inception in 1986. He is the second person with UB ties to receive the honor; former engineering professor Esther S. Takeuchi won it in 2007 for developing a battery used to power implantable cardiac defibrillators.
Obama will present the medal to McCombs and other award winners during a ceremony Feb. 1 at the White House.
Created in 1980, the National Medal of Technology and Innovation is administered for the White House by the U.S. Department of Commerce's Patent and Trademark Office. It recognizes those "who have made lasting contributions to America's competitiveness and quality of life and helped strengthen the nation's technological workforce," according to a White House statement.
In the statement, Obama described McCombs and other medal winners as "inspiring American innovators." The president said they "represent the ingenuity and imagination that has long made this nation great - and they remind us of the enormous impact a few good ideas can have when these creative qualities are unleashed in an entrepreneurial environment."
McCombs, who holds more than 40 U.S. patents and hundreds more internationally, helped develop in the 1960s a new way to separate gases. Called pressure swing adsorption, the method uses synthetic zeolites (a type of mineral) that act as a molecular sieve to collect targeted gases. PSA technology has been used to improve safety and efficiency in numerous industries including, but not limited to, steel and paper manufacturers, wastewater treatment plants and fish farms.
McCombs was first to develop a PSA system that produced oxygen. The device, called an oxygen concentrator, is primarily used to treat people suffering from chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, which includes chronic bronchitis, emphysema and other lung diseases. The initial device weighed more than 200 pounds, but McCombs has since made it small and safe enough that the Federal Aviation Administration approved its use on commercial airplanes, enabling countless COPD sufferers for whom it was previously not possible to travel.
Today, there are approximately 1.2 million oxygen concentrators in the U.S. alone, a more than $2 billion economy, according to data from the Department of Commerce, insurance companies and medical equipment providers. The devices save billions of dollars in health care costs each year.
UB President Satish K. Tripathi lauded McCombs' accomplishments, adding that the medal is an appropriate tribute to his extraordinary career.
"Norm's work in developing portable oxygen systems has improved and extended the lives of millions of people around the world and transformed the way numerous companies do business," he said. "Through his ingenuity, innovation and vision, he personifies the intellectual passion and impactful leadership we seek to instill in our students. He is truly among our most distinguished and inspiring alumni, and our UB community heartily congratulates him on this richly deserved award."
McCombs was born in Amherst in 1937 in a house built by his father, roughly a mile from UB's North Campus. He graduated in 1956 from Amherst Central High School, where he met his future wife, Grace. He received an associate's degree in electrical engineering from Erie County Technical Institute (what is now Erie Community College) in 1958.
While studying at the institute, he began work at Fedders Corp. doing research on heating, ventilation and cooling systems. In 1963, he joined the Linde Division of Union Carbide, where he began researching separating the components of air. He also enrolled at UB, earning a bachelor's of science degree in mechanical engineering in 1968.
At Union Carbide, McCombs developed the PSA method and used it to boost oxygen levels at a wastewater treatment plant in Orange County, N.Y. As a result, the plant could treat five times the amount of waste it previously handled, he said. Union Carbide applied the technology to other industries including, but not limited to, metal cutting, mining and glass manufacturing.
Believing there was a market for smaller PSA systems, McCombs left Union Carbide and founded Xorbox Corp. in the 1970s. His first success came from producing a PSA system used by Midas and other automotive service companies.
He then turned his attention to medical equipment, creating a PSA system that allowed veterinarians to perform extended medical procedures without concern of running out of oxygen. That led to the production of a similar system - the oxygen concentrator - for human use at home.
The device, which is plugged into an electrical outlet and delivers oxygen through a mask or nasal cannula, improves the quality of life and extends the lives of people afflicted with COPD, which is among the leading causes of death worldwide. McCombs has since refined the product; AirSep now offers battery-powered systems that weigh less than 2 pounds.
He has received numerous awards including being named a fellow and receiving the Thomas A. Edison Patent Award of the American Society of Mechanical Engineers, in 2004 and 2007, respectively; the Lifetime Achievement Award by the American Intellectual Property Law Association in 2005; as well as the 2007 Engineer of the Year, the Dean's Award in 2008 and the Clifford C. Furnas Memorial Award in 2010, all from the UB School of Engineering and Applied Science.
McCombs, 75, enjoys playing classical guitar, sculpting, cooking and traveling.