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Racing for air

More Confronting COVID-19 Stories

Multi-disciplinary team designs and builds life-sustaining ventilator in only 14 days.

The team's device is comprised of more common or easily-sourced components.
The team's device is comprised of more common or easily-sourced components.

Any other time, having two weeks to design and prototype a respiratory ventilator that can outmatch those created by hundreds of international teams would be a daunting task. These days, however, the stakes are much, much higher than bragging rights.

A multi-disciplinary team comprised of Queen’s University faculty and students, as well as health professionals from Kingston Health Sciences Centre (KHSC), entered the Code Life Ventilator Challenge earlier this month. Together, they are hoping to be among the top three groups whose designs could go into production and soon start saving lives threatened by COVID-19. With the challenge about to close, the Kingston-based team worked steadily through the weekend to finalize their functioning ventilator model.

“In people infected with COVID-19, parts of the lungs fill with fluid, which prevents oxygen from passing into the blood, and causes the lungs to fatigue and stiffen,” says Ramiro Arellano, Head of Queen’s Department of Anesthesiology and Perioperative Medicine, and team member responsible for ensuring the device will provide the life-sustaining respiratory support patients require. “As an analogy, imagine how your legs would feel walking on pavement compared to walking in knee-deep mud; eventually your muscles tire and fail. For the lungs, a ventilator takes over the work so muscles can rest, and the body can better fight infection.”

Dr. Arellano says the brilliance of their team’s design is its use of items readily available in the community in combination with items that are easily sourced or 3-D printed.

In pairing two continuous positive airway pressure (CPAP) machines, commonly used to treat conditions like sleep apnea, the team was able to harness the air pressure required to provide a patient with the correct amount of oxygen. Since CPAP machines provide constant airflow to users, they next had to innovate a way for the device to provide a steady, on-and-off supply of air more akin to the natural tempo of breathing. Combining a small computing device, a series of tubes linked to the CPAP devices, and mechanical arms that compress the tubes intermittently, the team was able to simulate the proper timing to provide regular spurts of oxygen.

The Queen's/KHSC team's ventilator design.
The team's ventilator design combines machines typically used to treat sleep apnea with a computerized control centre that governs airflow.

“Our ventilator design goal was to make the production of the device as simple and versatile as possible,” says Reza Najjari, a postdoctoral fellow in mechanical and materials engineering whose expertise in fluid dynamics has him overseeing that the device will deliver the precise volume of air to a patient. “I think the simplicity and modular features of our device give it the potential to help a lot of people, as it provides the production flexibility that local producers need to manufacture them rapidly with the materials they have on hand.”

Drs. Najjari and Arellano feel that the team’s cross-disciplinary approach makes their Code Life Ventilator Challenge submission highly competitive, while recognizing there may be strong competition from across the globe. They are focused on creating an effective, life-saving device with an open-source design that can be used by anyone around the world.

“Our ventilator design would not have been achievable without the wide-ranging expertise and collaboration of our team of researchers at Queen’s,” says Dr. Najjari. “We had specialists in fluid and solid mechanics, biomechanics, electrical engineering, computer science, and health sciences; all who showed the utmost dedication to creating this important device.”

Dr. Arellano took it further, comparing the team’s complement of experts to an ensemble of musicians.

“In many ways, the team is built like an orchestra,” he says. “Each person plays a unique instrument and the amalgamation and organization of each unique sound produces music that would be impossible otherwise.”

Contest finalists will be announced soon. Watch the Code Life Ventilator Challenge website for the list of winners to appear. In the meantime, read about another ventilator design project being led by Queen's Nobel Laureate Art McDonald.