Engineering student designs snorkel-like mask with fan to help protect healthcare workers from COVID-19

·3 min read
Emanuel Martinez Villanueva wearing the respirator he designed that helps healthcare workers breathe clean air while working with COVID-19 patients.  (Submitted by Emanuel Martinez Villanueva - image credit)
Emanuel Martinez Villanueva wearing the respirator he designed that helps healthcare workers breathe clean air while working with COVID-19 patients. (Submitted by Emanuel Martinez Villanueva - image credit)

Emanuel Martinez Villanueva's memory of his mother being proud of him has kept him going for his work on a respirator he designed to help keep front-line workers safe from COVID-19.

His mother died from the disease herself in Mexico in February.

The respirator — a face mask that filters air for the person to breathe in — was the brainchild of the engineering department at the University of Alberta under Rafiq Ahmad, an engineering professor.

They began working on a proactive solution to help keep healthcare workers safe in March 2020, after seeing the effects of the pandemic in Italy and Spain.

Villanueva came up with the design, inspired by the video game Halo, and they had a prototype ready by August 2020. For the remaining months the team worked on the prototype, tinkering with the device to make it better, more comfortable, and long-lasting while also looking for ways to make it available to the masses.

Submitted by Emanuel Martinez Villanueva
Submitted by Emanuel Martinez Villanueva

Villanueva would fill his mother in once a week about the progress of his work. He said she was so enthusiastic about his work and was willing to support him all the way from home.

"She was even talking about probably she could find some investors or someone down there," he said.

The news of his mother passing left Villanueva in a dark place for a moment. He kept thinking if his device had been ready and he had sent one to her, maybe she would still be alive.

"At that moment I felt devastated," he said.

Although he has come to terms with the fact that there was nothing he could have done, he is now motivated even more to have the device out for mass use.

"It's like honouring her, the life of my mother through this project ... because if I couldn't save her, at least I want to save somebody else," he said.

After several adjustments, they came up with a finished product in March that is ready for use. The final design looks like a clear snorkelling mask (which inspired it) that covers the whole face — much bigger than a regular N95 mask — with hoses to a special battery-powered fan and filter system.

On Thursday, Ahmad told CBC's Edmonton AM the mask is bulkier for a reason.

"It is designed specifically for front-line workers working in a COVID intensive environment where they would have COVID patients," he said.

"When there is a high chance that COVID droplets or COVID viruses are there in the air, this filters the air and that goes to the frontline worker so they don't need any other protective gear."

Ahmad is also personally affected by the pandemic, with his brother currently in an ICU in Pakistan with COVID-19.

Ultimately, both Ahmad and Villanueva are driven by the fact that their design can help a community of doctors not just in Canada but around the world.

The team wrote a paper on the first prototype and submitted it to HardwareX, a peer-reviewed, open-access, scientific journal for design and construction of scientific instruments, in June.

The paper includes their entire work, including 3D-modelling, to help reproduce the early version of the respirator they created in August.

"We feel this is a global solution for a global problem," Villanueva explained.

Recently, the team has partnered with a manufacturing company called Flexcim Services to get the device mass-produced, which they hope happens by fall.

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