Engineers Adapt Off-the-Shelf Breast Pumps and Arduinos Into Low-Cost Rapidly-Producible Ventilators

Taking just four hours to convert, these breast-pump ventilators could help shore up supplies in the battle against COVID-19.

A team of four engineers have developed a novel ventilator for COVID-19 patients which repurposes low-cost and commonly-available breast pumps — and the conversion process can be done in as little as four hours with household tools.

It's no secret that healthcare services across the world have far too few ventilators to treat the expected peak of COVID-19 patients requiring ventilation as a result of an infection from the SARS-CoV-2 virus. Makers, engineers, and tinkerers across the globe have volunteered designs ranging from the OpenLung and Mechanical Ventilator Milano to the OxVent and more — but a new design from Maryland ditches the manual bag valve mask (BVM) component common to most homebrew designs for a breast pump.

"[A breast pump] does pulsing intervals. It is a sanitise-able biomedical device that's approved by the [Food and Drug Administration] FDA," engineer Brandi Gerstner tells news outlet The Bay Net of the design's inspiration. "You know they're reliable, they’ve been used by moms everywhere for decades. What if I could reverse it? What if I could make it blow rather than suck? And so I grabbed my old one from the basement, grabbed a screwdriver and an X-Acto knife... Sure enough, you can turn it around very, very easily.”

The conversion process takes about four hours, and includes the addition of backflow filters and safety releases in order to prevent the virus entering the compressor or the machine overloading the patient's lungs with too much pressure. The devices are not only easy to make, but relatively cheap: Gerstner estimates each one costs around $500 total, a tenth of the cost of an entry-level ventilator. The electronics conversions are handled by Arduino microcontrollers.

Gerstner runs a YouTube channel demonstrating the prototypes in action, while a Facebook page has been set up with more information on the design and to solicit donations of convertible breast pumps and Arduino development boards.

Gareth Halfacree
Freelance journalist, technical author, hacker, tinkerer, erstwhile sysadmin. For hire: freelance@halfacree.co.uk.
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