Chea Waters Evans

In this still of a YouTube video, Jim Richards of Charlotte uses the AeroBreath ventilator that he, along with a partner, invented to efficiently and cost-effectively save lives. Photo contributed.

It’s in the news every day: If hospitals run short on ventilators, health professionals will have to decide which COVID-19 patients get them, essentially deciding who gets a chance to survive and who doesn’t.

Complex machines that cost thousands of dollars and are no longer readily available, ventilators assist patients with reduced lung function by enabling them to breathe with mechanical help. Jim Richards, an engineer and inventor from Charlotte, has created, along with a small team of aerospace engineers, a device they call the AeroBreath ventilator. It costs around $100 to make, the components are all easily and readily available, and they hope that sharing it with the world will allow many to live who might not have had a chance.

‘“Gasping for air.” Those words on the morning news a few short weeks ago made my sense of urgency skyrocket. We needed a new approach to aid those suffering most,” Richards writes in a public letter on the Aerobreath website. In his regular life, he’s an aerospace engineer who runs Aerodyme, a firm in South Burlington that focuses on Commander aircrafts. He writes, however, that his curiosity about the way things work has informed his passions in many ways: “From 8 years old in 1962, I have been figuring out how machines work,” he writes.

Now, with the AeroBreath Project, Richards, who is the chairman, is taking that drive and putting it to work to save lives. “Through detailed review of a 15-year-old PLV-102b ventilator, I found that critical functionality could be easily replicated by a very simple machine,” he stated. “No software, no firmware, no electronics, simple check valves and, potentially, no need for power except for a hand crank. Our first working prototype was made from readily available materials in my lab, including a Quikrete tube.”

These devices would allow patients who are suffering from the characteristic breathing trouble that comes from COVID-19 infections to receive breathing assistance they might need but not receive due to a shortage of traditional ventilators. Richards said that they consult regularly with a medical team regarding hospital- and patient-specific issues and that he has successfully used the machine on himself.

The nonprofit organization hopes to quickly deliver 10,000 AeroBreath devices where they are needed most and then keep producing them until the market is bolstered to the point where, should another similar pandemic occur, healthcare providers will be in a better position to assist patients.

The AeroBreath Project’s web site said there are two instances in which the device would be particularly effective: first, in U.S. hospitals that have negative-pressure ICUs, and second, in parts of the world where negative-pressure ICUs are unavailable. (A negative-pressure ICU is one in which there is low-level air suction from the ventilator unit to prevent pathogens from escaping the room.)

The site states that in the U.S. the AeroBreath ventilator “will be impactful as a transitional device to be used by patients who have overcome COVID-19 in the ICU, are now testing virus-free, but may need to be weaned off a ventilator over a period of 1-2 weeks. Currently, the high-tech ventilators must be sent with these patients, thus reducing the number of those devices available to new ICU patients.”

In regions of the world “without access to negative-pressure ICUs,” the site said, AeroBreath devices “can be utilized prior to a patient becoming critical, in order to give them more oxygen and strength to fight the virus.”

With FDA approval in the works, patents and trademarks filed, and plans already in place for production and delivery, the AeroBreath Project engineers hope to get their devices into the hands of medical professionals as soon as possible. They’re currently working on expanding clinical trials and developing partnerships to help distribute the devices. “We have been fortunate to receive significant early support from forward thinking and compassionate individuals and organizations,” their website said.

“We believe only simplicity and speed can save the most lives in the most places,” Richards said. “When enabled by the resources, creativity and generosity of people who want to help, we can make a significant difference in overcoming COVID-19.”