UConn researchers develop “readily deployable” ventilator

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Staff at Penlon test ventilators ahead of them being shippedout. An order for 15,000 Ventilator Challenge Penlon devices has been placed by the English government for the newly-adapted design backed by a high tech manufacturing consortium VentilatorChallengeUK (VCUK), which includes Formula One racing teams Mercedes, McLaren and Williams. Research on ventilators is being done at UConn right now. (Steve Parsons/PA via AP)

Staff at Penlon test ventilators ahead of them being shippedout. An order for 15,000 Ventilator Challenge Penlon devices has been placed by the English government for the newly-adapted design backed by a high tech manufacturing consortium VentilatorChallengeUK (VCUK), which includes Formula One racing teams Mercedes, McLaren and Williams. Research on ventilators is being done at UConn right now. (Steve Parsons/PA via AP)

Powered by a windshield wiper motor identical to that of a car, a team of researchers from the University of Connecticut has created a ventilator to help those infected with COVID-19.

UConn Associate Professor and Executive Director of the Fraunhofer USA Center for Energy Innovation Dr. Jeffrey McCutcheon is on the team that developed the prototype. According to him, if the need arises, the machines can be deployed within seven to 10 days to UConn Health.

“According to our colleagues at UConn Health, that’s enough time,” McCutcheon said. “Based on the needs, they will have plenty of warning before we run out of ventilators. Seven to 10 days seems like a good number for them. From our perspective, we could put everything together and assemble five to 10 devices and that would work for them.”

All ventilators have a bag valve mask, more commonly known as an Ambu bag. When compressed, the Ambu bag provides oxygen to the connected patient and improves their breathing. The ventilator developed by McCutcheon’s team uses a device around the Ambu bag, powered by a windshield wiper motor, to inflate and deflate the bag at a steady rate, regulating the patient’s breathing.

“A windshield wiper motor runs this machine. They’re very robust. It had been authorized for use by Spain’s version of the FDA,” McCutcheon said. “What we’ve done is created a machine that does that automatically with a constant breathing rate and constant volume. When a person is struggling to breath, a ventilator improves their respirator performance. We’re building a device around it to compress the Ambu bag.”

This particular ventilator was designed strictly to help in an emergency situation, quickly. Described as “the backup to the backup,” by McCutcheon, the machine is a basic alternative to high-tech ventilators that can cost upwards of $50,000 with “all the bells and whistles,” McCutcheon said.  

“This is supposed to be something very inexpensive that is ready to (be) deploy(ed) rapidly in an emergency situation,” McCutcheon said. “This was always meant to be an emergency-only device that if never got used, I consider that a good thing. That means we aren’t running out of the high-tech ventilators.”  

This ventilator, inspired by a similar model used in Spain, was first imagined by Fraunhofer Center Laboratory Director Ed Wazer in mid-March. In just the past few weeks since then, the team has built the prototype and phase three of the project is expected to be finished today.  

The team, whose lab was re-opened for “extraordinary circumstances” after UConn shut down all labs on March 20, partnered with Whitcraft Group, a manufacturer based in Eastford, Connecticut. 

“They were more than happy to work with us,” McCutcheon said. “We provided them with the design and the materials and they are working on prototype three.” McCutcheon said UConn needed the partner to help with production.

“UConn is not a manufacturer,” McCutcheon said. “What would differentiate us is that we wanted a pathway to deploy them rapidly.”

McCutcheon’s lab is also exploring solutions to personal protective equipment (PPE) cleaning and hand sanitizer production, he said.

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Luke Hajdasz is a staff writer for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at luke.hajdasz@uconn.edu.

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