Rice University Engineers ‘MacGyver’ an Inexpensive Ventilator for Coronavirus Patients

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At Rice University in Houston, engineers assembled a ventilator that may one day help coronavirus patients breathe. From left to right, Thomas Herring, Fernando Cruz and Danny Blacker.

Photo: Jeff Fitlow/Rice University

Rice University engineers are building a prototype of a ventilator using 3-D printed parts and hobby-store materials for possible use by coronavirus patients in dire need of breathing machines.

The invention could be a stopgap for hospitals around the country in need of thousands of ventilators as the crush of Covid-19 cases climbs in the coming weeks.

“It’s a rolling tide of disaster,” said Rohith Malya, an emergency medicine doctor at Baylor College of Medicine and adjunct assistant professor of bioengineering at Rice, a Houston research university.

The ventilator, nicknamed ApolloBVM, weighs 8 pounds and could be mass-produced for less than $200 each, said Dr. Malya, who advised the team, made up of a Rice undergraduate and five faculty and staff members. It could be used at hospitals short on conventional ventilators in the coming days, possibly in Houston, under emergency use authorization, he added. The Food and Drug Administration has relaxed some restrictions on lifesaving equipment, given the extreme need.


Rice University Engineers ‘MacGyver’ an inexpensive ventilator for coronavirus patients.


cut case*



PVC bag

Readout screen

3D printed gears

Covid-19 patients in intensive care often require ventilators for several days to help them breathe, given the huge strain the virus puts on the lungs, Dr. Malya said.

Ordinary ventilators, which blow oxygenated air directly into a patient’s lungs at a controlled rate and volume, can weigh hundreds of pounds and cost tens of thousands of dollars. They take five to 10 days to manufacture, depending on global supply-chain processes, and require hundreds of different parts, Dr. Malya said.

The ventilator the Rice engineering team is building has 80% of the functionality of a full-size ventilator, he said, and could be used for the less severely ill.

The automated ventilator could also replace the practice of manually pumping air into patients’ lungs using devices known as bag-valve masks, he said. Medical professionals can tire rapidly doing it, and risk infecting themselves as well.

The bag-valve-mask is the linchpin of the ApolloBVM prototype, said Thomas Herring, a senior at Rice in computer engineering and robotics who is leading the project. Surrounding the bag valve, two “arms” automate the pumping of the valve.

While 3-D printers could help quickly make specific components of ventilation systems, there are challenges with assembly, said Gaurav Manchanda, director of health care at 3-D printing company Formlabs Inc.

“Training health-care professionals to use these assembled ventilators with little to no diagnostic information and then troubleshooting any issues that may arise could lead to even more risk for the patients,” he said in an email.

There are between 60,000 and 160,000 ventilators in the U.S., according to a research paper published last week in the New England Journal of Medicine. But nationwide distribution is uneven. In New York City, an epicenter of the pandemic, caregivers have access to about 3,500. The city has requested an additional 15,000 from the federal government, of which it has received 2,360 so far, a city spokeswoman said.

Write to Sara Castellanos at sara.castellanos@wsj.com

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