Auburn Ventilator Fix Passes Major Test

Michael Zabala, left, assistant professor in the Department of Mechanical Engineering, and Tom Burch, lecturer in the Department of Mechanical Engineering, Samuel Ginn College of Engineering, examine the RE-INVENT accessory.

A consistent headline throughout the COVID-19 pandemic has centered on a worrisome lack of ventilators for patients who battle the advanced stages of the virus. The machines those patients need can be required for a week or more.

Auburn University engineers, designers and medical experts saw the problem and wondered whether CPAP machines — Continuous Positive Airway Pressure — couldn’t be converted to fill emergency needs.

The project, called RE-InVENT, has now moved from the Samuel Ginn College of Engineering’s Department of Mechanical Engineering to the school’s College of Veterinary Medicine’s Vaughan Large Animal Teaching Hospital, where it was successfully tested April 3 on a 200-pound male Boer goat.

The CPAP-to-ventilator device can be assembled using $700 in readily available components, in addition to a standard CPAP machine of the sort used to help people with obstructive sleep apnea breathe more easily during sleep.

The test animal, which has about the same lung capacity as a human, was anesthetized and ventilated for about two hours.

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“It went better than I expected in being able to ventilate the animal,” said anesthesiologist Glenn Woods, who is affiliated with multiple Alabama hospitals. “This test confirms RE-InVENT’s potential to meet the demand for desperately needed ventilators.”

Stuart Clark-Price, associate professor of anesthesiology at the College of Veterinary Medicine, supervised the first animal test. “A functioning ventilator is one of the most important tools hospitals have for helping COVID-19 patients,” Clark-Price said.

Now the researchers are looking for a way to boost the unit’s capacity with a peripheral “booster box” that would essentially double the device’s pressurization capacity by employing an additional CPAP machine. The basic device can be assembled in as little as four hours, while ventilators seen in hospitals are complex machines that cost $25,000 or more.

Tom Burch and Michael Zabala, faculty in the Samuel Ginn College of Engineering’s Department of Mechanical Engineering, and Hayden Burch, a sophomore in mechanical engineering, initiated the project. Additional engineering faculty and alumni helped refine the mechanical design, control system, user interface and alarms.

“What started as pure intellectual curiosity quickly grew into an emotional race against time to potentially save lives,” said Zabala, an assistant professor. “We wanted to know if we could design a solution to solve the ventilator shortage problem.”

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