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Students Convert BiPAP System to Inexpensive Ventilator

Jul 14, 2020   |   by Julie Bonette

The device could help hospitals overloaded with COVID-19 patients or countries lacking access to ventilators.

This spring, Dartmouth students in ENGS 57/ENGS 169: Intermediate Biomedical Engineering felt the need to respond to the growing number of coronavirus cases and the resulting burden placed on hospitals.

As national news outlets reported on a shortage of ventilators, Kate French ’19 Th’20, dual-degree student Rose Gold, and BE candidates Shannon Kossmann ’20, Becca Thomson ’20, and Haley Richards ’20 decided to tackle this growing problem.

The students realized that it might be possible to convert a BiPAP (bilevel positive airway pressure) system—a common non-invasive at-home treatment for respiratory problems such as sleep apnea—into a ventilator, or "breathing machine," for patients in the hospital with compromised airways.

“As biomedical engineers, sometimes the challenge is need-finding, but in March, when COVID was at its height, the need was there,” said Richards. “So, it really felt like we were doing something that was an unmet clinical need.”

BiPAP ventilator prototype
The BiPAP ventilator prototype

At the end of spring term, the team had spent less than $1,400 on their prototype, which is comprised mostly of off-the-shelf components and takes only 90 seconds to install and program. To test the design, apparently one of only a handful in the country being developed, the team used a standard BiPAP machine.

“BiPAP machines are less expensive to begin with, so one of the nice things about this solution is that it is relatively inexpensive,” said Kossman.

“And you wouldn’t necessarily need to be an engineer to know how to put this together,” added Richards.

One of the team’s challenges was overcoming pandemic-related issues such as designing and testing the physical prototype while working remotely as well as shipping delays on the device’s components.

Team BiPAP on Zoom

“I think we did a good job of making it work in a situation that was kind of odd,” said French. “It required us to communicate a lot more and split up the research to kind of make people experts in different aspects of the project. We were able to pull together and work together.”

Since the team wasn’t able to fully optimize their system during the class, they created an open-source website to share their design for further testing. Meanwhile, engineering professor Ryan Halter, who is also an adjunct professor of surgery at Geisel School of Medicine, plans to keep the project moving forward via a summer intern and possible future partnerships with industry or non-profits.

“I was extremely impressed with how this group of students worked collaboratively in a remote setting to actually design, fabricate, and test a complex, multi-component system,” said Halter. “The team was able to design a system that has true translational potential.”

Luckily, as of this writing, forecasts of critical shortages of ventilators in the US have so far proven to be untrue. However, the group thinks their device could be beneficial in other ways.

“Ventilators are expensive devices, so we wanted to work on something that is not only critically important, but also a cheaper alternative to a ventilator that might be more accessible to rural hospitals or countries with different medical systems than the United States,” said French. “That could be impactful as well.”

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