BUFFALO, N.Y. -- 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 fourth
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, UB
alumnus and former engineering faculty member Wilson Greatbatch won
it in 1990 for invention, development and introduction into
clinical usage of the implantable cardiac pacemaker resulting in
saving more than 2 million lives and UB alumnus and former National
Science Foundation Director Erich Bloch was one of the inaugural
recipients of the National Medal of Technology in 1985.
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
In the statement, Obama described McCombs and other medal
winners as “inspiring American innovators.” Obama 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 (PSA), 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
(COPD), 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
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
McCombs, 75, enjoys playing classical guitar, sculpting, cooking