CITRIS Invention Lab Opens to Produce COVID-19 Supplies

While UC Berkeley observes California’s shelter-in-place order, with most research labs shuttered, the CITRIS Invention Lab has received a rare exemption to operate the makerspace to fabricate products and prototypes designed to mitigate the COVID-19 crisis, including Personal Protection Equipment (PPE), ventilator adaptors, and materials needed by campus researchers.

“We felt there was a huge role for us to play in combatting the crisis,” says Eric Paulos, faculty director of the Invention Lab, “and we’re figuring out how we can best utilize our skills and resources to support the kind of research projects people are starting to come up with.”

The Invention Lab, in collaboration with the Jacobs Institute for Design Innovation, is ready to respond to COVID-19 related ideas, physical prototypes, and solutions. For starters, a coalition of mechanical engineering students and alumni led by CITRIS researcher and mechanical engineering professor Grace O’Connell aims to convert CPAP and BIPAP machines designed for sleep apnea to treat patients with COVID-19. Many of the estimated 8-10 million household CPAP/BIPAP devices in the U.S. go unused, and can potentially be repurposed for use by pulmonologists. To modify CPAP machines, the team designed adapters that were developed in the Invention Lab.

“This is a massive undertaking and we will need to continue working with local, statewide, and even national entities to get these devices into hospitals quickly to help treat COVID-19 patients,” writes O’Connell. “It wouldn’t have been possible to move the project this far without donations and volunteers from companies, Berkeley residents, and Cal alumni and students.” To register a CPAP/BIPAP device for donation, see VentilatorSOS.

CITRIS Invention Lab - 3D printing of a ventilator part for prototype
Photo: Chris Myers

The urgent need for PPE has inspired many grassroots efforts to create protective gear using open-source designs on prototype equipment, but according to lab technicians, the task is more complicated than it may appear.

“There are a lot of designs out there that aren’t working,” says Chris Myers, senior lab technician. “Which ones meet medical guidelines and are approved by the NIH [National Institutes of Health]? How can we use our expertise to modify designs to make them more usable?”

Keeping PPE sterile is another challenge. “We need to figure out how to keep them sterile in the lab, while transporting, and how to keep them sterile as they get to where they’re going,” continued Myers. “If not, we’re just producing more plastic for landfills.”

Then there’s the raw material, in increasingly short supply. “All our local sources for supplies are gone,” says senior artist Dan Chapman. “The PTG plastic sheeting for face shields is unavailable.”

For that, the Invention Lab partnered with MakerNexus, a makerspace organization in the South Bay, which has PTG stock to affix to brackets produced in the Invention Lab. MakerNexus also distributes the PPE to local hospitals.

That connection was brokered by Berkeley architecture student Tina Piracci, who learned about MakerNexus through the Open Source COVID19 Medical Supplies Facebook group. She works as a graduate student instructor in Myers’s Design Innovation course and uses the Invention Lab to print 3D ceramics for coral reef research.

“To collect all these resources from around the community has been really satisfying,” says Piracci. “Just seeing how the community comes together… everybody’s so willing to help.”

The Lab’s waiver from the Office of the Vice Chancellor for Research stipulated strict safety precautions for staff. “We could all be there together keeping a safe distance, but we decided to stagger schedules and work in the lab at different times,” says Myers. “This way also provides more coverage.”

The three-person limit has meant that eager volunteers and the lab users cannot be accommodated. “That was pretty heart-breaking, because the makerspace is a place for people to come and solve problems,” says Chapman.

“We hope conditions change soon and we’re very encouraged by the amazing participation and the potential for this to help ameliorate the current COVID-19 situation,” says Paulos.

Researchers can get started by setting up office hours for consultation with Invention Lab designers and technicians and submitting ideas to help combat COVID-19.

The UC Berkeley research community is welcome to submit requests to the CITRIS Invention Lab and Jacobs Design Institute to fabricate designs related to COVID-19 (start here). CITRIS has also announced a special CITRIS seed funding – COVID-19 Response call for virus-related projects; the deadline is April 24, 2020.