Project Spotlight: RespiraWorks Update

RespiraWorks continues progress on their full-featured, open-source respirator.

Written by: Tif Ho

The Challenge

Since the first known cases in late 2019, COVID-19 has spread rapidly throughout the world. As of August 13th, the number of cases tops 20M globally, with more than 740K deaths. This means a fatality rate of over 3%. COVID-19 has resulted in more known deaths than several other health outbreaks. For example, the fatality rate of COVID-19 compares to fatality rates of 2% during the 1918 Influenza pandemic and 0.1% for the seasonal flu. 

The reason for COVID-19’s high death rate is that it is a multisystem disease, which attacks every part of the body, including the kidneys, liver, heart, brain, and lungs. The disease’s attack on the lungs is especially dangerous, because lung damage causes low oxygen levels, a condition known as hypoxia. This then results in damage to other major organs. In fact, some cases of COVID-19 result in Acute Respiratory Distress Syndrome (ARDS). In ARDS, severe vascular damage to the lungs reduces an individual’s ability to breathe on their own, causing major organ failure and death.


Diagram of Ventilator System

Ventilators are often the difference between life or death for ARDS patients, and can help to reduce the fatality rate by delivering oxygen to those who cannot breathe on their own. Problematically, since the onset of the pandemic, there has been an extreme shortage of ventilators. The reason for this is that ventilators are complex machines that include proprietary components from multiple parts of the global supply chain. As a result, they are costly and take a long time to build. While many organizations have sought to speed up manufacturing and distribution through rapid-build ventilators, these ventilators are often intended as “bridges.” That is, they are meant to be used as a short-term solution until another ventilator is available and thus, are not compatible with patients who require a ventilator for a longer period of time.

The Updated Solution

RespiraWorks was founded as an open-source project for ventilators. Curtis Kline, who is a Cofounder and Project Manager for RespiraWorks, states, RespiraWorks is a non-profit organization working to rapidly develop, manufacture, and deploy a low-cost and open-source ventilator for communities under-served by the global supply chain. 

The ventilator uses readily-available materials that are found in the automotive supply chain. The use of these materials reduces cost and time to build, and also means that any country with automotive manufacturers can produce the ventilator. As the ventilator has evolved, the team has also incorporated custom materials.


Software considerations.

Asked about RespiraWorks’s mission, Cofounder and Hardware Engineering Lead, Edwin Chiu, says, “The overall mission of RespiraWorks is to radically democratize the ventilator by creating a fully-featured ICU ventilator that will serve an enduring benefit both during the pandemic and beyond it.” Biomedical Engineer, Pallavi Gunalan follows up with, “What makes the ventilator so radically different and able to be democratized is that it is open-source.” Both Chiu and Gunalan emphasize that RespiraWorks is 100% committed to remaining open-source. The open-source design allows for manufacturing and distribution of the ventilator by anyone with the capabilities to do so. Thus, the design is free to use without licensing.

RespiraWorks Updates on CoVent-19 Challenge, India Collaboration, and Oxygen Control


RespiraWorks’s goals have continued to evolve over time. Their original intent was to design, manufacture, and distribute an open-source, high-quality bridge ventilator for medical centers that serve low-resource communities. In fact, RespiraWorks originally partnered with Hospitalito Atitlán in Guatemala, as a pilot location for the use of their ventilator. However, the team quickly changed directions, moving from a bridge ventilator towards a full-featured ventilator that is intended for ICU use. Chiu explains, “We realized that other teams were already doing great work with bridge ventilators. But bridges are for short-term, and we wanted to know what would happen after, for patients who need a ventilator for longer periods of time. So we decided to design a full-feature, ICU ventilator.” 

In deciding to build a full-featured ventilator, the RespiraWorks team came across multiple issues. Firstly, a full-featured ventilator required a longer design time in order to meet safety regulations. This meant that the ventilator would not be ready in time for the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic. Secondly, the costs associated with the regulatory process were prohibitively high. This meant that manufacturing and distributing the ventilator through RespiraWorks would be difficult.


Electrical diagram.

RespiraWorks addressed these concerns by changing their goals. The team decided to work towards a second wave of COVID-19 that is expected to hit during fall. This gives them to time to work on a higher-quality ventilator design that would be available for use both during the pandemic and beyond. The team also decided to pursue partnerships with manufacturers who could help to shoulder the costs of getting regulatory approval. 

Thus, RespiraWorks’s objective has shifted to producing a fully-functional Reference Design that is complete with the necessary design history, risk analysis, and documentation in order to pursue FDA 510(k) approval. The team remains fully committed to making their Reference Design completely open-source so that any organization can use it in order to pursue approval and bring the ventilator to market. Additionally, the team is willing to provide engineering support to as many manufacturing partners as their resources allow.


Pneumatic Diagram

RespiraWorks’ Reference Design is for a full-featured ventilator. This ventilator is intended as a long-term solution for patients who may be on a ventilator for a period of weeks. While RespiraWorks still intends to keep costs low, the team has decided to do so without sacrificing the quality of the ventilator. They have added additional features and decided to forgo the compressed air that many bridges use. As a result, they estimate that the final cost of the ventilator will be under $2,000. This is 10 times less than the price of other full-feature ventilators, which usually cost between $20,000 and $50,000.


  • March 2020 – RespiraWorks is founded by engineers Edwin Chiu, Ethan Chaleff, Elizabeth Hillstrom, and operations manager Curtis Kline. The team gets started through a GoFundMe page.
  • April 2020 – The team finalizes and tests their first prototype, the Alpha Build. During this month, they win Protocol Labs’s COVID-19 Open Innovation Grant.
  • May 2020 – The team partners with Foundry M in India and starts working on a Beta Build. During this month, they also acquire 501(c)(3) nonprofit status and receive a CITRIS grant.
  • June 2020 – RespiraWorks submits their design to the CoVent-19 Challenge and places 3rd the following month
  • July 2020 – RespiraWorks becomes one of the Top 10 Finalists for the COVID-19 Design Innovation Grant.
  • August 2020 – RespiraWorks continues to move towards a full feature Reference Design, while partner Foundry M sets an aggressive timeline for advancing towards an August 15th Demo Day.


Since its founding in March 2020, the RespiraWorks team has remained dedicated to their mission. Their current progress is categorized into five areas:

  • Electrical – The team has designed and manufactured a custom Printed Circuit Board (PCB). The PCB is used to connect electrical components for the ventilator. RespiraWorks’s PCB integrates two separate computing elements for real-time control and graphical user interface, along with the supporting sensor and actuator drivers required for the ventilator. The team is in the process of designing the next revision of this PCB, which will allow for a higher level of integration.
  • Pneumatic – The ventilator’s air and oxygen control system is able to deliver closed-loop pressure-controlled breathing cycles to a patient, while providing the sensing to measure tidal volume and patient breathing effort. The closed-loop system allows for controlled, time-triggered cycle breaths that are based on and tailored to patient inputs.
  • Software – A real-time control system measures patient pressure and breathing effort, and can deliver both machine- and patient- initiated breaths in Pressure Assist Mode. The team also has a working Graphical User Interface (GUI) that controls breathing mode parameters. The GUI allows for greater usability by ventilator technicians through the provision of a live plot of patient breathing data, as well as built-in alarms. The team is currently in the process of refining that control, adding breathing modes, and adding alarms.
  • Mechanical – RespiraWorks is on the second interaction of their enclosure design and aims to do a test build with manufactured pieces in September.
  • Testing – The team has begun doing basic pressure-controlled breathing cycle tests based on ISO 80601, using an IngMar QuickLung with a simple QuickTrigger for patient breathing effort simulation. They are currently seeking an Ingmar ASL 5000 or equivalent active test lung to do more advanced testing against active patient behavior. To test reliability of the moving parts, particularly ones that were designed by RespiraWorks, the team currently has a setup which has been running the key moving parts of the ventilator for 800+ hours at twice the expected duty cycle of the ventilator. This is equivalent to 100+ days of continuous operation at regular duty cycle.


The RespiraWorks team is working hard towards several goals, which they hope to achieve in the upcoming months. These goals include:

  • August – Complete a full build of the enclosed ventilator.
  • September – Get all the required documentation in place in order to pursue FDA 510(k) regulatory approval.
  • October – Continue further testing and development of regulatory documentation.

How You Can Help


Since its founding, RespiraWorks has grown into a global organization that includes over 200 volunteers from more than ten countries. Volunteers hail from the U.S., the Netherlands, Lithuania, Guatemala, India, Canada, France, and several other countries. Currently, the organization is seeking to add to its team and has open roles for individuals with regulatory experience, software engineers, and electrical engineers.


In early May, RespiraWorks partnered with Foundry M in the Andhra Pradesh MedTech zone in India. The two teams are currently collaborating in order to develop the hardware and software for manufacturing and deployment in India. Since then, they have successfully sourced and tested locally-manufactured hardware components, and are working on producing a demo unit fully assembled in India. Given the success of the Foundry M partnership, RespiraWorks is seeking additional partners to collaborate with on the continued development of the ventilator in local communities. The team is also open to partnerships with manufacturers, who are able to seek regulatory approval for the design prior to building. 


Additionally, RespiraWorks is looking for access to an active test lung, such as the IngMar ASL5000. This test lung will allow for advanced testing so that the team can ensure that their ventilator meets safety regulations. The team is asking that organizations or individuals who can lend this test lung, please contact Edwin Chiu.


Finally, the team is fully committed to remaining 100% open-source. In order to maintain their commitment to providing a free and accessible design, RespiraWorks is seeking donations and funding

Want to volunteer? 

Email RespiraWorks recruiter, Erik Peters, at [email protected]. Please include information about your background and interests. Learn about open positions that fit your background or interests, and join the team

Want to collaborate?

Development and manufacturing partners should email [email protected]. Businesses and organizations seeking to partner on and/or contribute to fundraising efforts can email our fundraising team, Trisha Beltz or Tif Ho

Want to donate?

Donate at

Want to learn more?

Learn more about this project on their website, and on GitHub,

The designs in this article are presented As-Is. The goal is to present designs that can foster further discussion and be utilized in countries that permit this product. These are not finalized designs and do not represent certification from any country. You accept responsibility and release Helpful Engineering from liability for the manufacture or use of this product. This design was created in response to the announcement on March 10, 2020, from the HHS.  Secretary of the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) who issued a declaration pursuant to the Public Readiness and Emergency Preparedness (PREP) Act

Link to Prep act. :




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Waste as a Resource: Charting the Journey of Plastic into Roads

Photo by Nareeta Martin on Unsplash

Plastic waste, omnipresent and seemingly immortal, pervades every corner of our planet. Once celebrated as the marvel of modern innovation, it now stands as a monument to our unchecked consumption. However, the tide is turning. From waste emerges an unexpected solution: using plastic waste in road construction.

The basic premise revolves around using plastic waste as a partial substitute for bitumen in roads. But how is this concept fairing on the ground? Let’s delve into five case studies from around the world:


Perhaps one of the earliest adopters of this method, India has paved thousands of kilometers of roads using plastic waste. The southern city of Chennai has been at the forefront. Their approach involves shredding the plastic to a specific size before mixing it with bitumen.

Learnings: The roads demonstrate increased resilience, especially during the monsoons. However, the importance of maintaining a consistent plastic size was a significant lesson, ensuring even distribution and longevity.

The Netherlands

This European nation took a modular approach. They introduced plastic road surfaces as pre-fabricated blocks, making installation and maintenance more manageable.

Learnings: The modular nature allows for quicker repair and replacement. Moreover, these blocks, when worn out, can be recycled, further pushing the sustainability envelope.

South Africa

Here, the approach was more community-centric. By involving local communities in plastic collection, not only were roads built, but jobs were also created.

Learnings: Beyond just infrastructure development, the project showcased how environmental solutions could have socio-economic benefits. The community ownership also ensured consistent plastic waste supply and road maintenance.


Down under, they embarked on a pilot project in Melbourne by using a mix of recycled plastics equivalent to plastics from over 3 million plastic bags, along with glass and toners from used print cartridges.

Learnings: The diversity in the type of plastics used provided a more comprehensive blueprint for cities worldwide. It emphasized the need for rigorous testing to determine the right mix and highlighted the potential to incorporate other recyclable materials.

United Kingdom

The UK’s approach was heavily research-driven. They launched trials in Cumbria to understand the long-term effects of plastic roads.

Learnings: The UK’s focus on research underscored the importance of longitudinal studies. While immediate benefits are evident, understanding the environmental and structural impact over years or decades is crucial for widespread adoption.

While these successes chart a hopeful course, the journey of integrating plastic waste into roads is not without its challenges:

  • Type of Plastic: Not all plastics are suited for road construction. This necessitates thorough segregation and compatibility checks.
  • Environmental Impact: There’s a risk of microplastics being released into the environment as roads wear down.
  • Health Concerns: Toxic fumes released during the melting process could pose health risks to workers and nearby communities.
  • Durability and Performance: The long-term performance of plastic roads in different conditions remains a topic of study.
  • Recycling Limitations: Some plastics lose their structural integrity after being recycled multiple times, impacting road longevity.
  • End-of-Life Management: The disposal of worn-out plastic roads without causing environmental harm is an unresolved challenge.
  • Economic Viability: Balancing the costs of treating and integrating plastic can be a hurdle.
  • Public Perception and Acceptance: Garnering public support and addressing concerns are essential for this initiative’s success.
  • Regulatory and Standards Development: The absence of standardized guidelines can complicate the construction process.
  • Supply Chain Challenges: Ensuring a consistent supply of suitable plastic waste, especially in less urbanized regions, can be challenging.

These examples, spread across different continents, highlight the adaptability and potential of integrating plastic waste into road construction. But it’s more than just a technical solution; it’s a paradigm shift. The message is clear: what we deem ‘waste’ today could be the ‘resource’ of tomorrow.

Each case study, with its unique approach and lessons, illustrates the significance of context. There’s no one-size-fits-all solution, but the underlying theme remains consistent — innovation, adaptability, and sustainability are key.

As we reflect on these global efforts, it becomes evident that the journey of plastic waste from being discarded to paving our roads is a testament to human ingenuity and resilience. Through these case studies, we discover myriad ways to reimagine waste, reshape infrastructure, and redefine the future. It’s a potent reminder that innovation emerges from challenges, and with commitment and vision, the path to change is always within reach.

Waste as a Resource: Charting the Journey of Plastic into Roads was originally published in Helpful Engineering on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

Akon: An Odyssey of Light and Empowerment

Photo by Andreas Gücklhorn on Unsplash

Akon and Andy Rabens Pose For Photos with Entrepreneurs

In the sprawling expanses of Africa, as twilight descends, a new beacon of hope emerges. Not from global energy moguls or international benefactors, but from the pulsating world of music. At the helm? Akon. Once a maestro of chart-topping hits, he’s now orchestrating a different kind of rhythm: a rhythm of transformation.

Much of Africa’s tale has been shadowed by the absence of dependable electricity. Remote hamlets plunged into twilight, their only respite being the toxic fumes of kerosene lamps. But with Senegalese roots grounding him, Akon envisioned a brighter narrative.

Solar Embrace

Treading into the vast potential of the continent, Akon’s endeavor was nothing short of audacious. His ‘Akon Lighting Africa’ initiative, set in motion in 2014, sought to electrify remote corners across 25 nations. Aiming to impact a staggering 600 million lives, it was a symphony of ambition and altruism.

Central to this narrative was the sun. Africa, eternally kissed by sunlight, had its potent energy often overlooked. Akon and his team sought to capture this perennial force. Solar panels, once mere passive structures, were transformed into catalysts for change.

They bypassed the need for expansive infrastructures typically associated with traditional power. By decentralizing energy, Akon’s approach empowered communities at a granular level. Each village, each home, could become a fortress of self-reliance. This isn’t just electrification; it’s emancipation.

Empowering the Grassroots

A critical facet of Akon’s strategy was its deep-rooted commitment to nurturing local talent. This wasn’t a superficial transplantation of Western technology. Instead, a robust drive was undertaken to train local engineers and budding entrepreneurs.

By 2021, a formidable 5,000 individuals had been molded, ensuring that the projects didn’t just illuminate, but also invigorated. A local with the expertise to manage these solar setups ensured continuity. This wasn’t mere infrastructural deployment; it was the birth of an entirely new vocational realm. Here was a circular philosophy at play: knowledge and skills didn’t just arrive; they stayed, grew, and prospered.

A Financial Masterstroke

Financing such an ambitious venture was no small feat. Traditional models, often myopic in their vision, failed to grasp the intricacies of rural African electrification. But Akon and his team sketched a different blueprint.

With a deft mix of public and private alliances, they channeled investments from entities passionate about genuine societal impact. This wasn’t just about monetary gains; it was about dividends in human progress. The strategy cultivated sustainable growth without saddling nations with crushing debt.

In Akon’s journey, we glimpse more than just benevolence. It’s a masterclass in synergy, in uniting profit with purpose, leveraging sustainable avenues, and bestowing power upon local communities. It’s a circular dance of progress where every step forward is a leap for an entire community.

From the rhythm of his melodies, Akon once moved the world. Today, through the hum of countless electrified villages, he’s rewiring the continent’s future. One panel, one village, one heartbeat at a time.

The Lighthouse Effect and Africa’s Renaissance

Akon’s ambitious endeavor to illuminate the heart of Africa wasn’t just a testament to his commitment to his roots, but it became a beacon for many African celebrities and influencers who had made their name on international shores.

His journey began a ripple effect, sparking a reverse brain drain and an emergent African identity that champions global knowledge but with deeply rooted African solutions.

The Reverse Brain Drain

Historically, many of Africa’s best and brightest pursued opportunities abroad due to limited resources and infrastructural challenges at home. This led to a “brain drain,” where talent flocked to Western countries. However, Akon’s investment in Africa’s potential has ignited a trend that defies this narrative.

Returning Talent

Following Akon’s steps, several prominent personalities like Didier Drogba, the famed Ivorian footballer, established charitable foundations. Drogba’s foundation, in particular, has been involved in various health and education initiatives in Côte d’Ivoire. The success stories of these initiatives began attracting Africans abroad to consider returning home, leveraging their global experiences and network to make a difference.

Skills and Expertise

The returnees brought more than just capital. They brought with them skills, experiences, and insights from some of the world’s best institutions and companies. They began setting up enterprises, tech hubs, and initiatives in fields ranging from renewable energy to digital innovation and education.

Collaborative Initiatives

Akon’s venture prompted collaboration. Nigerian actress Genevieve Nnaji, for instance, used her platform to emphasize the importance of education and has actively participated in projects aimed at building schools in rural regions. Her collaboration with other returnees and foreign institutions is a testament to the synergies now taking root in Africa.

Crafting a New African Identity

Akon’s initiative has not only been about electrifying homes but also about reigniting pride in African identity.

Homegrown Solutions

This renewed identity champions the philosophy of “For Africa, By Africa.” Instead of wholly importing foreign solutions, there’s a significant emphasis on tailoring interventions to the unique challenges and strengths of African societies.

Cultural Renaissance

Alongside infrastructural developments, there’s been a palpable rejuvenation of African arts, music, literature, and cinema. Stars like Lupita Nyong’o and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie are leveraging their global platforms to bring attention back to Africa, advocating for an appreciation of its rich traditions and potential.

Economic Paradigms

Africa is now being seen not just as a beneficiary of aid but as an equal partner in global economic dynamics. Akon’s foray into cryptocurrency with the launch of “Akoin” in Senegal is a prime example. This venture further emphasizes his vision of an economically self-reliant Africa, leveraging modern technological tools.

In essence, Akon’s electrification project has been much more than a philanthropic endeavor. It has lit the way for a generation of African influencers, beckoning them back to their roots, not out of obligation but opportunity.

With every village that lights up, it’s not just the darkness that’s kept at bay but also the shadows of outdated narratives. Akon and his league of influencers are championing a new story for Africa, one that blends its rich legacy with a luminous vision for the future.

Akon: An Odyssey of Light and Empowerment was originally published in Helpful Engineering on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

Scaling the Skies: Navigating the Highs and Lows of Urban Vertical Farming

Photo by Nadine Primeau on Unsplash

In the heart of bustling cities with desert horizons, where skyscrapers cast long shadows and space is a premium, a new silhouette is emerging — vertical farms. These towering havens of greenery promise fresh produce even in the densest urban centers. Yet, with their rise come challenges: space constraints, soaring energy demands, hefty initial investments, and intricate upkeep. However, as innovators are proving, every problem has a solution. Let’s traverse the stacked aisles of urban vertical farming.

Tilling the Concrete Jungle

The dream is seductive: converting urban spaces into productivity hubs, reducing food miles, and offering city dwellers a literal taste of the farm. However, dreams often grapple with reality:

Space Constraints: While vertical farming minimizes horizontal space use, urban centers, especially in desert countries, offer limited space due to high property values.

Energy Appetite: Traditional farming thrives on sunlight. Vertical farms, however, often rely heavily on energy-intensive artificial lighting, especially in regions with prolonged hot and sun-scarce periods.

Capital Challenges: Setting up a vertical farm isn’t cheap. From specialized lighting to hydroponic systems, the initial costs can be daunting.

Maintenance Maze: These farms aren’t just about sowing and reaping; they’re complex systems requiring consistent monitoring and adjustments.

Innovating Upwards: Modular & Energy-Efficient Solutions

What if the challenges of space and energy could be turned into strengths?

Modular Systems: Think of them as Lego blocks for farmers. Customizable, expandable, and versatile, they can be fitted into various urban spaces, from rooftops to balconies to abandoned warehouses.

Tapping Renewable Energy: Solar panels or wind turbines can be integrated to harness natural energy. In sun-rich desert countries, this could counterbalance energy consumption.

Optimized Lighting: Advanced LED lights, tailored to emit specific wavelengths, can promote faster plant growth with less energy.

Smart Systems: Automated sensors and AI-driven analytics can reduce the need for constant human monitoring, optimizing conditions for plant growth while conserving resources.

Case Study: The Oasis Towers of Dubai

Dubai, with its sprawling skyscrapers and desert backdrop, epitomizes space and environmental challenges. Enter the Oasis Towers: a series of vertical farms powered entirely by solar panels, taking modularity to new heights. Designed as self-sufficient units, each module can be tailored to specific crops. The result? A 70% reduction in water usage and a significant drop in energy costs, producing yields comparable to larger traditional farms.

Cost-Effective and User-Friendly: Democratizing Vertical Farming

High-tech farming solutions can seem out of reach for small-scale urban farmers and community gardens. Yet, the future holds promise:

Shared Farming Spaces: Think co-working spaces, but for farmers. Shared facilities can spread out the costs, making the technology accessible to many.

Training and Support: Local governments and NGOs can offer training sessions, ensuring farmers reap the most from these systems.

Local Manufacturing: Producing components locally, especially in warm or desert countries, can reduce costs.

Simplified Systems for Community Gardens: Stripping down advanced systems to their essentials can provide community gardens with affordable vertical farming solutions.

Case Study: Lima’s Urban Green Revolution

Lima, with its warm climate, has seen community gardens sprout throughout the city. Faced with space constraints, locals innovated with cost-effective vertical solutions. Using locally sourced materials, combined with basic hydroponic systems and shared LED setups, yields have flourished. These community-driven initiatives not only feed neighbourhoods but also foster community ties and engagement.


Vertical farming, with its verdant towers and digital dashboards, offers more than just fresh produce; it paints a vision of a sustainable, resilient urban future. Warm and desert countries, often at the frontlines of climate change, stand to gain immensely from this agricultural renaissance.

Yet, the transition demands more than just technology; it requires a blend of innovation, community engagement, and a dash of audacity. As city skylines evolve, integrating green into the gray, vertical farming stands not as a mere trend but as a testament to human ingenuity in the face of challenges. From Lima’s community gardens to Dubai’s Oasis Towers, the future of farming is not just on the horizon, but reaching for the skies.

Scaling the Skies: Navigating the Highs and Lows of Urban Vertical Farming was originally published in Helpful Engineering on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.