In Race With Virus, Engineers Speed Development of Medical Equipment
With new designs as well as innovative techniques for reviving old gear, University of Maryland engineers hustled this spring to meet dire needs for medical equipment needed by health-care workers fighting the COVID-19 pandemic.
In response to heartbreaking stories of endangered doctors and nurses short of N95 respirator masks, along with urgent requests for ventilators to help the sickest patients breathe, researchers in the Robert E. Fischell Institute for Biomedical Devices zeroed in on several advances to fundamentally improve the U.S. response to the virus: semi-permanent alternatives to disposable, scarce N95 respirators; a method to safely sterilize used masks with gamma radiation for reuse; and simple, cheap manual ventilators. Even more audaciously, the goal was to deliver them in days or weeks, a warp-speed deviation from standard development timelines.
“There is an outpouring of people trying to figure out ways to help,” says bioengineering Professor William Bentley, director of the Fischell Institute. “Some of the groups have very proactive, near-term response activities, and others are more far-reaching.”
One group of researchers in the A. James Clark School of Engineering developed a method to quickly create customized respirators for medical workers. Unlike N95 masks—filtered respirators meant to be used once and thrown away—their alternative design can use a variety of replaceable filters. At the end of the day, instead of trashing it, users can simply wash it with soap and fit a new filter. Prototyping and initial production took place in UMD’s Terrapin Works 3D-printing facilities.
Clark School bioengineers also worked to develop simple, but functional ventilators amid fears the United States could need hundreds of thousands more than the computerized, hospital-grade models it has on hand if COVID-19 spreads catastrophically.
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