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How Physicists At CERN Are Aiding The Fight Against COVID-19

Jan Buytaert and Paula Collins, have led a team of physicsts and engineers from the LHCb collaboration at CERN to develop a novel streamlined ventilator. Jacques Fichet, Samuel Hertzog/CERN

Like the rest of the world, activities at CERN, one of the leading laboratories in particle physics and home of the Large Hadron Collider, have been limited to only those essential for the safety and security of the site and equipment. However, the 18,000 members of the CERN community felt that their technologies and expertise could be utilized in the collective fight against COVID-19. Therefore, at the end of March, a dedicated group called “CERN against COVID-19” was set-up to coordinate the organization’s efforts, releasing all innovations under an open license.

In its short lifetime, the group have already produced around 1,200 liters of sanitizer gel for emergency response teams, used the facility’s 3D printing and workshop capability to produce protective equipment such as masks and Perspex barriers for those in public service roles, and have begun studies into the deployment of the particle physics community’s large computing capacity to assist in the search for a vaccine.


CERN’s own Fire and Rescue Service have also been working with emergency services in Geneva, Switzerland, where it's located, and some personnel who can neither work from home or on site have been using CERN’s vehicle fleet to deliver supplies to those at risk.

A team of volunteers has produced and delivered 54 face shields following the request of a hospital in Annecy, France. CERN

On top of that, a team of physicists and engineers from the Large Hadron Collider, the world’s most powerful particle accelerator that straddles the French-Swiss border at CERN, have been leading a project to produce a novel streamlined ventilator, called HEV (the High Energy Ventilator).

Ventilators are in short supply across the globe, because in severe cases of COVID-19, the disease can cause breathing difficulties and pneumonia – leading patients to need a breathing aid. In light of these shortages, Jan Buytaert, the lead designer from the LHCb VELO group, noticed that the types of systems used to regulate gas flows for the particle physics detectors could be used to build and operate a ventilator.

Supported by medical professionals, the team of physicists designed an inexpensive first prototype, which relies on readily available components, on March 27. According to CERN: “The HEV design could be used for patients in mild or recovery phases, enabling the more high-end machines to be freed up for the most intensive cases.” A further design quirk is that HEV can be powered just by batteries, solar panels or emergency power generators, enabling the ventilator to be used in areas with limited resources.

The HEV concept was designed with easy-to-source components, such as electro-valves, a two-liter buffer container, a pressure regulator and several pressure sensors. CERN

This “stripped-down” model has already been proposed in a paper published on pre-print server arXiv, in order to “invite fast feedback for development and deployment”, with hospital trials expected to begin in mid-April. Despite this quick turn-around, safety is the number one priority of the initiative.

“It is difficult to conceive a project which goes all the way and includes all the bells and whistles needed to get it into the hospital, but this is our firm goal,” HEV collaborator Paula Collins of CERN, told the CERN Courier. “After one week we had a functioning demonstrator, after two weeks we aim to test on a medical mechanical lung and to start prototyping in the hospital context.”

CERN’s HEV project follows in the footsteps of other physicists from the Global Argon Dark Matter Collaboration, and the Laboratory of Instrumentation and Experimental Particle Physics, in Portugal, who have all proposed novel ventilator designs.


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