Queen’s engineers make it to second round of Code Life Ventilator Challenge

“This is fundamentally what engineering is about”: students and professors compete in global ventilator design competition

A team of Queen’s engineers is developing a ventilator made from repurposed CPAP devices.
Rick Sellens

As intensive care units find their facilities at maximum capacity due to COVID-19, a team of Queen’s engineers are developing a new ventilator that can be built at home.

The Code Life Ventilator Challenge—a competition created by the Montreal General Hospital Foundation and the Research Institute of the McGill University Health Centre—is offering a $200,000 prize to one team that designs a “simple, maintainable, easy-to-manufacture” ventilator that can provide life support to COVID-19 patients around the world. 

Out of more than 1,000 teams who are participating in the challenge, Queen’s has already made the shortlist of roughly 60 teams. The winner will be selected on April 15.

Initially, Rick Sellens, associate professor in the Faculty of Engineering, took an interest in the fact that hospitals and healthcare facilities around the world are facing a shortage of ventilators as they respond to the COVID-19 pandemic. 

When he heard of the Code Life Ventilator Challenge, Sellens had already built the first version of his ventilator using rolled up garbage bags, duct tape, and his personal Continuous Positive Airway Pressure (CPAP) device. 

Sellens, who uses a CPAP each night to sleep because his own respiratory system is compromised, said his interest in creating an easy-to-manufacture and affordable ventilator prototype is one of “selfish motivation.” 

“I have a compromised respiratory system and there’s a shortage of ventilators—what can I do about it?” Sellens said in an interview with The Journal. “I started from that point of view.”

With two extra CPAPs at home, Sellens began experimenting with how he could repurpose them as ventilators.  

While the CPAP device provides continuous air pressure to an individual throughout the night, a ventilator provides alternating pressures that essentially allow the machine to breathe for a patient.

Sellens needed to find a way for the CPAP to open and close independently, and to know how to manage the pressure of air such that a patient can breathe functionally under its guidance. 

As he played around with the design, Tim Bryant and Heidi Ploeg, both mechanical engineering professors at Queen’s, recruited a team of students comprised mostly of individuals completing a Masters of Engineering alongside a few undergraduates. They also reached out to David Yokom, Queen’s director of Innovative Educational Initiatives, to get in touch with manufacturers. 

The top three designs will be made available online for free so anyone can download the software and computer-generated designs, gather materials, and build their own ventilator wherever they are located.

According to Sellens, anyone who has enough skill to repair a bicycle should be able to recreate the Queen’s model ventilator. 

“If you have a 3D printer, you could print all of these parts in about a day,” Sellens said, adding that parts could also be ordered online from a retailer like Amazon. “Once you have all the parts, you should be able to create a functioning ventilator within an hour to an hour and a half.”

Though their design has already been submitted for review, the team is still in the process of developing it further. The team had approximately two weeks to create the original prototype, underlining the expectation that it be accessible and easy to manufacture.  

However, as a result of social distancing, most team members have never met in person. They meet at 9 a.m. on Zoom each morning to exchange ideas, report progress, and lock in completed elements of design. 

Following safety precautions so as not to physically interact with one another, the team members separately visit their unit model in McLaughlin Hall.

For Sellens, the work provides a positive outlook on the pandemic.  

“I’m starting to feel more optimistic about western industries getting ventilator production up to speed to be able to support needs in industrialized developed nations,” Sellens said. “I was not feeling so optimistic a month ago.” 

He remains concerned for developing nations, which will not have the same access to this level of ventilator production. 

No matter how far the design makes it in the competition, the Queen’s team is determined to follow through with their design to the manufacturing stage in the hopes it will help people in the Kingston community or become an option for those in developing countries.

“This is fundamentally what engineering is about,” Sellens said. “Engineers tend to be quietly in the background all the time, but everything in the world that actually works probably has some engineers standing behind it. There’s no new science happening here, it’s engineers coming together to solve practical problems.”

This idea was shared by Sonja Pejčić, a Masters of Engineering student involved in the project.

“I really appreciate the professors reaching out and giving me the opportunity to feel like I’m contributing in some sort of way,” Pejčić said in an interview with The Journal. “It helps as a way to take my mind off things during this stressful time.”

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