Faisal Sani Bala, an Assistant Lecturer in the Department of Mechatronics and Systems Engineering, Abubakar Tafawa Balewa University, Bauchi, led a team of eight experts to invent an automatic ventilator, aerosol box, disinfection chamber and an application that helps detect people with COVID-19, Lassa fever and other diseases. He tells ARMSTRONG BAKAM how the machines were made from old office equipment, among other things.
The recent invention of ventilators and other devices has been commended by the public as it will help in the treatment of COVID-19, how did you achieve it?
It was possible because we got support from our vice-chancellor who provided us with the seed funding we required to buy raw materials. Secondly, we can also commend the drive and commitment which our team members had. Then thirdly, I saw several beautiful initiatives and things other universities were doing. Several Nigerian universities have produced hand sanitisers to help either their immediate community or the larger community to fight the COVID-19.
So, I thought that aside from hand sanitisers, we should be able to do some other things which would help to fight the virus or improve the health standard of those people that are in the front line.
How long did it take?
Initially, we had a time frame of at least three weeks to work but for so many reasons, we had to collapse the time frame and reduce it. That meant we had to put in more hours to work in the laboratory. We had at least 17 and a half hours of work every day and by doing that, we were able to work less than 10 days to come up with these solutions.
You created ventilators and other treatment machines, what are the other treatment machines?
We have an automatic mechanical ventilator. We have an aerosol box, which is used by medical personnel to isolate patients during medical procedures that involve the respiratory tract or intubation or anything that has to do with the nasal cavity. The main reason why the aerosol machine is required is that medical personnel are at a very high risk when attending to patients who are sneezing or coughing.
Once they contract this virus, they can no longer be in active service, they’ll have to isolate themselves and when you take one medical professional out of work in this crucial time, that will be serious as we have very few of them. However, when you have this device to protect our doctors and nurses, the risk of them contracting diseases during procedures will become minimal. It’s still convenient for the patient because they can still have air that they can breathe within the box even if they are not using the ventilator, while the doctor will be able to work successfully.
Then, we have the disinfection chamber; this is used for the disinfection of clothes and the body. When you have a hospital or an isolation centre, you won’t want the virus to get out. Even when health workers use personal protective gear, they need to disinfect them all the time. But if you have this device at the entrance, it will disinfect the person going into the place and going out. It can also be used in other places where people go a lot like banks, federal and state secretariats, and universities.
It can be used to bring down the level of infection because it will increase access to disinfection. It is also easy to use as it is automated; all that is required is disinfection solution. The last one is an application which uses a CT Scan or computer tomography image. Once it is available in the specialist hospital which is being used as an isolation centre, it’s going to help so much because it is a very fast way of initially screening the patient with an image that comes from the CT Scan. A student, Jennifer Chukwu, led the CT Scan AI application development. She is my student and we developed that solution.
How do they work?
The ventilator is automatic and it works with both DC means and solar because we made it for Nigeria. Once it is switched on, it provides the amount of ventilation that is required. The mechanic push and pull which is required to provide the needed volume of air and pressure that is to be delivered to the lungs of a patient is being provided automatically.
Then the dispensing machine or the automatic spraying chamber has a light-activating sensor; once the person enters inside to block the light, then the machine will detect his presence and after that, there will be sprinkling in the whole chamber and they get cleaned up from all four directions. The aerosol box is to be mounted when the patient is lying down while facing up, then it can be put to help medical doctors to perform procedures on the patient.
For the medical lab, all what is needed is to have the application on a tablet. It can be downloaded via memory card or digitally transferred to the computer or tablet so that the classification of all kinds of illnesses can be done. And it’s very simple; once you press a button, it will tell you whether the patient is suffering from COVID-19 or pneumonia or normal. This is not meant to substitute the PCR test for COVID-19 but it can be used as an initial screening. So, for patients that have turned out to have a high probability of contracting the COVID-19, they can be subjected to the PCR test to further confirm the presence or absence of COVID-19 in their system.
Have they all been tested?
We have started to work with medical doctors and some of them have tried to analyse the aerosol box to see how well it has been designed and how well it can be used. The Chief Medical Director of the ATBU clinic has attempted to use the device and he has given a very good response but that is not a certification, by the way. He has given a very good remark about the system. Several other medical doctors that have seen the innovations have made good remarks and they said they would be happy if their employers would get them such kinds of aerosol box whenever they want to work on patients. For the automatic sprinkling machine, comments about that have also been very encouraging because we have demands for them already. Some clinics have said they would like to have such systems installed for them. It is actually meeting a certain need or requirement.
You said it would require money to make those things in commercial quantities or do mass production, what do you require to do that?
I can say we have some of the equipment but we need some raw materials like filament for 3D printers. We also need to have many things, they are many.
How and where did you source these materials?
For now, we had to source them locally; we sourced them from old office equipment but if we want to make them in large commercial quantities, then we will need to have standard materials. What I mean by that is that we have to make these devices from tested and verified original equipment manufacturers like electric motors or sensors, so we need to have access to those items that have been verified. Rather than the government importing ready-made ventilators, it will be better for them to give us financial support and access to have these materials either made directly in this country so that we can use them for our production, or we have them in large quantities to be imported so that we can use them to design our systems.
How did the project start?
I was actually restless for two to three days and I really wanted to see how I could contribute my own quota in fighting COVID-19. I felt I’m first a human being before being a lecturer. Two, I saw what other people were doing all over the world and saw no reason why Nigeria should be an exception.
I came up with the idea and some initial designs. Since we were on strike, I had to solicit for direct access to the vice-chancellor and he granted me audience. I made presentations to him on all the projects and he gave me the go-ahead to start and also gave me the seed funding required to purchase the materials needed. I was also able to mobilise like-minds who were immediate past students as well as my academic colleagues and technologists.
We are trying to walk the talk, to say the universities are not dead. What you see here is a testimony to the fact that we can actually do more if given the opportunity. So, this exhibition you are seeing is a plea to the government that our universities also will like to play their role in building this nation and fighting COVID-19 because all over the world, universities have got a lot of funding. There are new funds and grants meant for fighting COVID-19 and these funds and grants are to be accessed rapidly; they are not grants that will take a long process to access. We are equally calling on the government to make such funds and grants accessible to the universities.
How would you compare your ventilator to the imported ones? What would say are the differences?
Well, ventilators are of various types; we have ICU-based ones and they are called high range ventilators. The ventilators we are coming up with are ventilators meant to address emergency and shortage. So their design method, methodology and philosophy are quite different from the ICU-based ventilators and it is not just common in Nigeria, but all over the world. The idea now is to make ventilators that can be easily assembled from simple components since we don’t have much time to do a very long design cycle. It is to make something that can be used within a short time, but that doesn’t mean you would do it without consulting the necessary experts such as pulmonologists and related medical experts.
Will you be willing to share the technology with other states?
Yes, we are very much willing to provide Lagos State Government with our aerosol boxes. We are willing to share with state governments in the South-West, South-East and South-South that have recorded some incidences, as well as Bauchi State.
What other innovations should be expected from your team?
That’s a tough question (smiles). Innovation doesn’t end and it starts from imaginations. When you look at problems, then you see solutions. It’s always good when innovations are problem-driven, so we hope to come up with some other innovations, particularly to improve healthcare beyond COVID-19.
There is Lassa fever in the state, why have you not invented gadgets and devices that could help in its treatment?
I’m not the only one culpable; there are other engineers in the country. No one has paid the much required attention to Lassa fever, obviously because it’s a disease that has only been ravaging some certain people in the social fabric of the society. I believe also Lassa fever should get the same response COVID-19 is getting. As you can see, some of these devices we’ve made can work very well to contain Lassa fever and we can even look at more specifics of Lassa fever in order to come up with innovations that will help in curbing the disease, not just in Bauchi, but in the country at large. We are supposed to have eradicated Lassa fever long ago.
What do you consider as the most interesting or favourite part of making those things?
In my experience of making things, the most important part is when I hit brick walls, when I don’t find what I want, when I get disappointed, tired, worn out, hungry or when it’s 11pm and there is a blackout and I still want to push more. So thinking and sleeping over everything and then coming up with a solution to crack it the next morning are the most interesting parts of it and it has always happened that way.
How many people were involved in the project?
We are about seven of us. Aside from me, there is an engineer, Aliyu Sambo; an Assistant Lecturer; and Aminu Wunti, who is an Academic Technologist. We also have former students who volunteered such as Moses Adebayo, Jennifer Chukwu, and Aliyu Hassan. There is Nasiru; Shehu, who is an engineer with the Technology Incubation Centre as well as Fatai. These people contributed immensely to make this become a reality.
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