Standard Article

Transport of Gases between the Environment and Alveoli—Theoretical Foundations

  1. James P. Butler1,2,
  2. Akira Tsuda2

Published Online: 1 JUL 2011

DOI: 10.1002/cphy.c090016

Comprehensive Physiology

Comprehensive Physiology

How to Cite

Butler, J. P. and Tsuda, A. 2011. Transport of Gases between the Environment and Alveoli—Theoretical Foundations. Comprehensive Physiology. 1:1301–1316.

Author Information

  1. 1

    Harvard School of Public Health, Boston, Massachusetts

  2. 2

    Department of Medicine, Harvard Medical School, Boston, Massachusetts

Publication History

  1. Published Online: 1 JUL 2011


The transport of oxygen and carbon dioxide in the gas phase from the ambient environment to and from the alveolar gas/blood interface is accomplished through the tracheobronchial tree, and involves mechanisms of bulk or convective transport and diffusive net transport. The geometry of the airway tree and the fluid dynamics of these two transport processes combine in such a way that promotes a classical fractionation of ventilation into dead space and alveolar ventilation, respectively. This simple picture continues to capture much of the essence of gas phase transport. On the other hand, a more detailed look at the interaction of convection and diffusion leads to significant new issues, many of which remain open questions. These are associated with parallel and serial inhomogeneities especially within the distal acinar units, velocity profiles in distal airways and terminal spaces subject to moving boundary conditions, and the serial transport of respiratory gases within the complex acinar architecture. This article focuses specifically on the theoretical foundations of gas transport, addressing two broad areas. The first deals with the reasons why the classical picture of alveolar and dead space ventilation is so successful; the second examines the underlying assumptions within current approximations to convective and diffusive transport, and how they interact to effect net gas exchange. © 2011 American Physiological Society. Compr Physiol 1:1301-1316, 2011.