June 8, 2020

UCalgary partners to produce life-saving ventilator for COVID-19 crisis

Exergy Solutions-led project sees simple open-source ventilator adapted and upgraded to Canadian health standards
Testing Bertie at the Advanced Technical Skills Simulation Laboratory (ATSSL)
Testing Bertie at the Advanced Technical Skills Simulation Laboratory (ATSSL) Advanced Technical Skills Simulation Laboratory (ATSSL)

A very simple ventilator, for very complex times.

That was the pitch from Dr. Craig Johansen, PhD, to provincial health officials as the spectre of an uncontrolled COVID-19 pandemic threatened to overwhelm hospitals, leaving critical patients without critical respiratory equipment.

The result, a few weeks and whole lot of teamwork later, is called the Alberta E-Vent — fondly known as “Bertie” —and it’s an automated resuscitator intended for short-term respiratory support, monitoring and treatment of adult patients when a conventional ventilator is unavailable.

  • Photo above: Testing Bertie at the Advanced Technical Skills Simulation Laboratory (ATSSL). Photo courtesy ATSSL

“The team has now been working full time for over a month to develop the mechanical, electrical, and software components of the Alberta E-Vent and have performed extensive testing,” says Johansen, an associate professor of mechanical engineering at the University of Calgary.

Local engineering firm steps up

At the same time Johansen was championing the idea of a simple emergency ventilator, the vice-president of a local engineering design firm was looking for ways to use the problem-solving prowess of Exergy Solutions Inc. to help the fight the global COVID19 pandemic.

Ian Buchanan says an open-source emergency ventilator project designed by engineers at MIT inspired him, and he set about finding the people who could help Exergy Solutions make it happen in Canada.

“I just felt that we’ve got to do something for the public, and we can make whatever is needed,” explains Buchanan.

Building a team to build a simple breathing device

A few calls and emailed introductions later, and the VP of technical services was talking to Johansen, a Schulich School of Engineering researcher who usually specializes in rockets.

“Craig gave me three of his top grad students to work with, and I can tell you, these guys are geniuses. As smart as all get out,” says Buchanan.

Those grad students, Shaun Gair, Colin Hill and Declan Quinn, acted as the eyes and arms for the engineers and designers at Exergy, as they spoke to the students online and determined how to bring the MIT design up to stricter Canadian hospital standards.

Their work included hundreds of hours at home and in the lab writing and troubleshooting code, with similar effort spent on mechanical assembly and troubleshooting.

Final design tested at University of Calgary

The final design automates breath delivery from a manual resuscitator, meeting a patient’s needs and freeing up a respiratory therapist, and it can be set for volume of air, inspiratory time, rate, and positive end expiratory pressure.

To ensure the modified MIT ventilators meet the need of patients in hospitals, the units were put through validation tests at the Advanced Technical Skills Simulation Laboratory (ATSSL) at the Cumming School of Medicine.

The latest version of the Alberta E-Vent ventilator.

The latest version of the Alberta E-Vent ventilator.

courtesy Exergy Solutions

The medical simulation lab is equipped with precision instruments that mimic lung performance and provide feedback on the emergency ventilator’s ability to adapt to the different needs of patients, including depth and pace of each breath.

The ATSSL team also facilitated user testing, inviting practicing respiratory therapists into the lab to assemble the units, and put them into action with the ALS 5000 lungsimulator.

“We set up a simulation scenario to allow respiratory therapists to use the ventilator, just like they would in a hospital,” says Irina Charania, ATSSL simulation consultant.

“They were able to review the user manual, assemble the device, and use it in a patient scenario.”

Life Sciences Innovation Hub key to project momentum

With Health Canada having approved the design, Alberta Health Services is welcoming the donation of 200 ventilators built by Exergy Solutions.

Key to moving the entire Suncor-sponsored initiative forward was Exergy’s early engagement of the Life Sciences Innovation Hub, a Calgary facility that supports research-intensive startups by providing access to its prototyping lab and equipment. They also worked with LSI Hub staff and the IMPACT program to manage the regulatory approval process for Health Canada.

"We are pleased to be a contributor in the effort to develop and manufacture these ventilators quickly and efficiently.,” says Nima Najand, associate director, Life Sciences Innovation Hub.

“The ‘Berties’ are among the first emergency ventilators approved by Health Canada and a testament to what can be accomplished when groups of people band together to respond to a crisis. I am confident that our efforts have put us in a state of preparedness should another wave of COVID-19 affect our province.”

The University of Calgary’s multidisciplinary Engineering Solutions for Health: Biomedical Engineering research strategy drives innovations that are saving lives and revolutionizing health care for Canadians. With collaborative teams focused on human mobility, health monitoring, advanced biomedical imaging, precision biodiagnostics, regenerative medicine and novel medical technologies, our researchers are transforming quality of life and continuously improving the health system.


UCalgary resources on COVID-19

For the most up-to-date information about the University of Calgary's response to the spread of COVID-19, visit the UCalgary COVID-19 Response website.