…We can produce 50 machines per week Faisal Sani Bala, an assistant lecturer at the Department of Mechatronics and Systems Engineering, Abubakar Tafawa Balewa University (ATBU) Bauchi, is the project lead of the COVID-19 Innovation Solution at the School of Engineering which invented an Automatic Ventilator, Automatic Disinfection Chamber, Software apps for detection of COVID-19, as well as Aerosol boxes. In this interview, he explains the motive behind the inventions, among other issues. Daily Trust Saturday: How did this project begin?
Faisal Sani Bala: It started as a dream; I was actually restless for 53 days and then I thought of how to contribute my quota in fighting COVD-19. Seeing what other people are doing all over the world, I see no reason why Nigeria should be an exception. So, I came up with the idea, conceptualized and made some initial designs. By the time I finished those initial designs, we were already on strike, so I had to solicit direct access to the Vice-Chancellor and he granted me audience. I made presentations to him on the project and he gave me the go-ahead to start and also seed funds required to purchase materials needed. I mobilized like minds from immediate past students as well as my academic colleagues and technologist.
As academics, we saw it as a sacrifice, just the way our colleagues are sacrificing around the world to combat the pandemic. Right now, our colleagues in places like the United State of America, United Kingdom and other developed countries are in their laboratories conducting research on the vaccine or a cure for COVID-19, as well as equipment required by medical personnel to combat the pandemic. As ASUU members, we were idle for some weeks because of the strike, but we felt we are humans first before being lecturers, so we had to talk with our union.
DT: What was ASUU’s reaction to your demand? Bala: ASUU was very understanding in this regard and has equally contributed to the fight against the pandemic after several awareness programmes. All affected members of the union were able to work without violating the rules which we swore to protect as members.
DT: How long did it take to fabricate these machines? Bala: We had just eight days to come up these four solutions and we worked as a team with discipline and unfettered commitment. The vision we shared helped in making this work a reality within a short time. As you can see, our prototype looks like an industrial type.
DT: How long will it take to manufacture a single ventilator or any of the machines? Bala: If the essential materials are available, we can mobilize the human resources required and can produce at least 50 ventilators per week. We see the disinfection spraying machine as a necessity because infectious diseases like cholera and Lassa fever have maintained their momentum in the country, especially in ravaging rural dwellers. One of the major challenges is that people contract these diseases, even in hospitals when they come to visit or interact with patients. If we have disinfecting chambers at the entrance of the hospital, people will get disinfected while entering and coming out, so no disease will find its way into the hospital ward and those that originated or emanated from the hospital can be cut off at the chamber before the person leaves the hospital. Apart from hospitals, it can also be used in other places with high density of humans and it will help in improving the standard of hygiene.
DT: What did you intend to achieve with this project? Bala: There are two or three things; the first is that we are trying to work the talk, especially to prove that the universities are not fake or that we don’t have the capability to do what is required of us. What you are seeing here is a testimony that we can actually do more if given the opportunity. This exhibition is a plea to the government that our universities will like to play their role in building this nation. They’d also like to play their role in the fight against COVD-19 because all over the world, universities have gotten funding and grants meant for fighting COVID-19. These funds and grants are to be accessed immediately to start research on COVID-19. We are, therefore, calling on government to try and make such grants accessible to the universities. This innovation is not for commercial purposes, but an intervention to help fight the pandemic. It wasn’t a paid research, but because our Vice-Chancellor is committed to innovation, he made resources available for the necessary materials. The members are not on any wage or salary, that is the human aspect of it. However, we need the government, private sector and donor organizations that are willing to fight the COVID-19 to key in.
DT: What is the difference between your ventilator and imported ones? Bala: Ventilators are of various types. The ventilators we are coming up with are meant to address emergency and shortage, so the design method, design methodology and design philosophy is radically different from the ICU-based ventilators. And it is not just common with Nigeria; all over the world, the design now is to make ventilators that can be easily assembled, that can be made from simple components since we don’t have much time to do the long design circle, certification circle and other things. Now, the philosophy is to make something that can be used within the shortest time, but that doesn’t mean it’s done without the necessary medical experts.
DT: Would you be willing to share this technology with other states ravaged by COVID-19? Bala: Yes, we are very much willing to take this technology to Nigerians, like our Aerosol boxes. We are willing to provide them to the Lagos State government and also willing to share with other states that have recorded cases and to also extend them to other states where they have isolation centres.
DT: What were some of the challenges you encountered before this breakthrough? Bala: Well, some of the challenges are getting the right machine to do certain functions but we were able to improvise. Power has been a challenge, although we’re already accustomed to working with or without light and we have a generator. The Aerosol box is meant to protect medical personnel. When you look at the ratio of medical personnel to patients in Nigeria, it is terrifying. We lose our doctors, nurses and other personnel to infection as a result of coming in contact with patients. This technology is meant to mitigate such occupational hazard and I think once hospitals and Isolation centres are equipped with aerosol boxes, our medical doctors will have minimal exposure to infections. The Aerosol box is a protective device that gives medical personnel extra protection when handling patients with COVID-19 and other respiratory diseases, particularly during incubation which allows smooth clinical manipulations required for successful incubation. The Automatic disinfection chamber ensures containment of an outbreak where disease pathogens get transferred from one person to another. This can happen in public places and particularly hospitals. Most people don’t disinfect their cloths when entering or exiting hospital wards. The disinfection chamber is wired with sensors that detect the presence of a human being, once there is someone inside the chamber, the disinfectant is automatically spread on the person from all directions. The Automatic Ventilator with solar powering and DC backup helps patient with breathing difficulty or any other respiratory disease. Ventilators are currently scarce and it is critical for patients who need it. The device can run for hours even when there is no electricity. It is easy and portable for medical use. For the software apps, what you need to do is start the tablet and snap the picture of the CT-SCAN or if the CT-SCAN has a digital image available, it can be downloaded via memory card or USB and transferred to a tablet or computer for the classification of various illnesses. It is very simple; with just the press of a button, it will tell you whether it’s pneumonia, COVID-19 or if the patient is normal.
DT: Have you tested the machines and what was the outcome? Bala: We have started working with medical doctors. The Chief Medical Director of the ATBU School Clinic has attempted to use the device and he has given a good response, but that is not a certification, the issue of certification is something we will pursue later, but so far, it has elicited remarkable responses and several other medical doctors who have seen the innovation are impressed.
DT: How much did the research cost? Bala: For now, I can’t give you the actual amount, but be assured that all the machines will be affordable. For the ventilator, we will continue to work with medical doctors to fine-tune the machine as we are going to have a pre-clinical trial and clinical trial before the final delivery. We are not going to skip the protocol required to get it to work.
DT: What do you need to be able to produce in commercial quantity? Bala: We will need standard devices from tested and verified OEMs like electric motors and so on. Rather than importing already made ventilators, the government should give us financial support and access to these machines, either those made in this country so that we can use them for our own production, or have them imported in large quantity so that we can use them to design our systems.
DT: Who are your team members? Bala: I, Faisal Sani Bala, am the team leader. We have Engineer Aliyu Sambo, Engineer Aminu Muhammed Wunti, Mr Moses Adebayo, Miss Jennifer Kelechukwu, Nasir Nasir, Aliyu Hassan, with support from Engineers Fatai and Muhammad Shehu Azare from the Technology Incubation Centre.