Over the course of a little more than one week, a Sherbrooke-based team designed, built, and tested a prototype medical ventilator made from readily available, abundant, and locally-sourced parts as a part of the Code Life Ventilator Challenge put out by the Montreal General Hospital Foundation and the McGill University Health Centre Research Institute.
Based on the premise that the number of people potentially in need of ventilators as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic could quickly overwhelm the amount of equipment available, the challenge called on research teams to design a low-cost, simple, easy-to-use and easy-to-build ventilator that can serve the COVID patients in an emergency timeframe.
“Our modern world provides the means to produce these life-saving ventilators thanks to widespread rapid manufacturing tools—3D printers, CNC machines— combined with low-cost computers (i.e. smartphones, Arduinos, etc.), but what we’re missing is a design,” the introduction on the challenge website reads. The idea lit a fire under Bishop’s University’s Bruno Courtemanche as soon as he heard about it. “A couple of days ago a student from the engineering department at Sherbrooke university contacted me and explained the challenge to me,” said Courtemanche, who is the coordinator of the Undergraduate Bishop’s Earth Research Group (UBERG) “He asked, can we do it? And I said yeah, with the right people.”
Speaking with The Record ten days later, the researcher said that it took a lot of hard work to pull the project off in the required timeframe. “Most of the team stopped their real-life jobs and started to work on it more than full time,” he said, explaining that the 20-member team included engineers, medical professionals, multiple professors, graduate and undergraduate students.
According to Courtemanche, the creation of what has come to be known as the “BreatHere” ventilator had no shortage of obstacles to overcome. The device had to be easy to build with materials on hand, functional, accurate, easy to use, robust, and also not violate the intellectual property rights of existing ventilator models. “We looked at a lot of older technologies, things that were on the market ten or 20 years ago,” he said, explaining that it is no small feat to be able to maintain a minimum pressure inside of the lungs while also making the device simple enough to be mass-produced.“You need to make sure that you don’t put components in that will be difficult to disinfect or that won’t contaminate the patient,” he said adding that the materials also need to be able to endure long-term exposure to pure oxygen, which can be both combustible and corrosive under the right circumstances. Having completed the challenge, the team is now waiting on approval from the government to move ahead with manufacturing. “There are 20 to 30 different regulations that apply (to medical ventilators),” Courtemanche said, pointing out that there are a lot of ways that an electrical, mechanical, medical device could fail to meet standards. “You need to prove that your device is good enough for a crisis like this and it will be good enough for the patient.”
Although the federal government has streamlined the approval process for this type of project, the team member said that they still need to get the green light before they can move ahead with the plan to create 1,000 of the machines a week. “For us the focus is in the next days, not the next weeks,” Courtemanche said, explaining that calls have already been made to local industries to start establishing the local means of production.
More information on the Breathere project, including the names of all of the team members, is available at www.breathere.ca