Several months ago, when COVID-19 started to change the world as we know it, the possibility that this might pose a bigger challenge than we had anticipated was not lost on the scientific community. While the medical community braced itself for what was to come, engineers and researchers were not far behind.
Professors and lab engineers from Texas A&M University at Qatar (TAMUQ), a partner university of Qatar Foundation, mobilised their resources to develop face shields, valves, and other tools that would help fight the virus.
One of their prototypes was of a snorkelling mask that could be converted into a ventilator using just an adapter. These can be plugged into ventilating machines at hospitals, and used as substitute for N-95 masks.
A startup company in Italy first began to apply this model – using snorkelling masks manufactured by sporting goods company Decathlon, and modifying them to be plugged into ventilators.
Using the open source information available online, Dr Marwan Khraisheh and Dr Yasser Al Hamidi of TAMUQ’s Mechanical Engineering Program led the efforts to design and develop similar versions for Qatar. Qatar Foundation Research, Development and Innovation arranged for the masks donation from Decathlon to the engineering team for modification.
The team began by designing a better-engineered version of the open-source concept available, and used the fabricating facilities and 3D printers available in their laboratories. The idea was to re-purpose the commercially available snorkelling masks by connecting them to adapters/valves to be used as non-invasive ventilators.
For patients with respiratory difficulties, a ventilation procedure called intubation is typically employed, which involves inserting a tube into the trachea. Using the adapter designed in-house connected to a snorkelling mask, the invasive procedure can be omitted entirely.
These masks feature a filter and a PEEP valve that the team at TAMUQ worked to modify, to ensure little to no leakage of contaminated air once worn by a patient with COVID-19, and to keep positive pressure inside lungs to keep lungs from collapsing. This could significantly reduce the risk to healthcare workers treating COVID-19 patients. It would also make a good option for healthcare workers to use as it significantly lowers the risk of contracting the virus.
Having already delivered hundreds of modified face shields to Qatar Foundation and Qatar Red Crescent, TAMUQ has also delivered prototypes of the snorkelling mask adapters to Hamad Medical Corporation, should there be a need to use them. Other innovations in the works include isolation chambers for patients and hands-free door openers for the general public now that countries are opening up again.
Dr. Khraisheh said that as an institution, they are constantly innovating and are prepared to help during these turbulent times.
Thankfully, the situation in Qatar has been handled well from the beginning, which means we need not use (the modified masks). However, if there are opportunities to use them to help the less fortunate countries with overwhelming cases, we are happy to help.
Dr Al Hamidi added that while this is the first time that they have put so much effort into something, they hope that it will never be used.
Dr Al Hamidi and his team were given special permissions early on in the pandemic to work in the TAMUQ laboratories to finalise their prototypes. As an engineering school, they have the capability to design, develop, and manufacture a number of innovations that can help in a situation like this. Dr Khraisheh said they are grateful to have the opportunity to support the medical community during this time.