Researchers working on “last resort” ventilator

M.Ungrin (L) -M. Lipsett (R)

Two Alberta researchers with Deep River roots are developing a “last resort machine” for when ventilators are no longer available in the COVID-19 pandemic.

According to a story from City News in Calgary, Mark Ungrin of the University of Calgary and Mike Lipsett, a mechanical engineering professor at the University of Alberta, are working on creating an emergency pandemic ventilator – a modern-day “iron lung” which was used during the polio pandemic.

The machine, unlike a ventilator that blows air into the lungs, will reduce the pressure around a body to help a patient breathe.

“The machine that you’re developing doesn’t have to touch the air that’s going into the patient if you imagine working in some isolated region, that’s short on materials in crisis situation… good filters and everything here, that may not be the case elsewhere,” said Ungrin.

The two engineers are working on a prototype that’s simple enough to replicate as a last resort to treat patients, but they’re not working out of university shops where they have the best grade equipment.

The team moved furniture in Ungrin’s living room and made a couple of trips to the hardware store to create the prototype, all while practising physical distancing with each other.

“So in a way we had forced (the machine) into exactly the situation that someone in an emergency situation might have to deal with,” Lipsett said.

“We had to create instrumentation to check the performance of our system, we had to duct tape things together.”

The machine would be used in a dire situation where there are no more ventilators available and it’s life or death for a patient.

The team is hoping to be able to make a basic and reliable model that can be easily made and manufactured in large numbers.

According to the Calgary Herald, the two have combined a high-powered vacuum cleaner with hoses, a bucket and other readily-accessible parts to roughly simulate the life-saving devices so crucial to treating the effects of the respiratory pathogen sweeping the planet.

“If we could get a good design working, people could build them with items they have,” said Ungrin, associate professor of comparative biology and experimental medicine in the Faculty of Veterinary Medicine and the university’s Biomedical Engineering research and training programs.

But the two cautioned that shop vacs shouldn’t be used at home by anyone concerned about COVID-19 symptoms.

“The vacuum cleaner could produce enough negative pressure to damage the lungs,” said Ungrin, also emphasizing he hopes the system would never be needed.

“Under any normal circumstances, I would not want to take this to patient care.”

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