MSUToday
Published: April 28, 2020

MSU team engineers new ventilator design

Contact(s): Caroline Brooks Communications and Brand Strategy office: 517-432-0920 brooks78@msu.edu, Ricardo Mejia-Alvarez Mechanical Engineering cell: (217) 649-6583 rimejal@msu.edu, Patricia Mroczek College of Engineering office: (517) 432-1303 mroczekp@egr.msu.edu

As the shortage of critical medical supplies hampers the fight against COVID-19, Michigan State University mechanical engineers have built a ventilator prototype using parts commonly available around the world.

Ricardo Mejia-Alvarez, assistant professor of mechanical engineering, and his team created an experimental mechanical ventilator using parts costing around $200. He said the low-cost prototype – the first of its kind – can be assembled with high volume, in-stock materials and without advanced engineering training. Mejia-Alvarez hopes the project alleviates developing world concerns about medical equipment shortages.

“There is an urgent need to expand the number of patients we can ventilate mechanically,” Mejia-Alvarez said. “Given its simplicity and low cost, and if the circumstances were to require it, anybody could put together his/her own ventilator."

The team has also developed a do-it-yourself instructional manual (video embedded below) explaining how to assemble the prototype. If supplies are available on site, assembly could take less than a day.

The ventilator itself is built mostly with PVC pipes and vinyl hoses, which can be procured at most hardware stores. The pressurized gas could be sourced directly off any available medical grade compressed air or oxygen cylinder. The pressure control system is simple and based on an Arduino microcontroller that is cheap, reliable and widely available in the market.

Scarcity of ventilators has forced health care providers to resort to emergency solutions, like sharing a single ventilator between two or more people. Such solutions, however, hamper the implementation of lung protective strategies, dramatically increasing the risk of ventilator-induced lung injury.

The prototype Mejia-Alvarez’s team designed allows for precise controls when applying lung protective strategies in patients. Given its low-cost, simplicity and the wide availability of materials, he said it would be possible for individual hospitals to rapidly increase the number of ventilators on-site instead of sharing ventilators between several people. 

"We are currently running simulation tests on artificial lungs to understand the real limits and capabilities of our ventilator and to ensure that its operation is simple,” Mejia-Alvarez said.

Mejia-Alvarez noted that his team – which includes technician Paul Sandherr, and doctoral students Joseph Kerwin and Suhas Vidhate – is not aiming to patent the design. Technical support for this project was provided by U.S. Air Force Maj. Dr. Adam Willis from the San Antonio Military Medical Center in Texas.

This ventilator prototype has not been tested on human subjects, nor does it have FDA approval for use in the United States, but Mejia-Alvarez said the ventilator should be free for development and distribution in the developing world.

“It’s critical for there to be worldwide access to lifesaving equipment in the fight against COVID-19, but developing countries are extremely disadvantaged in this situation,” Mejia-Alvarez said.