One of the ways that the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Science and Technology Directorate (S&T) helps bring ingenious solutions to address challenging problems is through its management of intellectual property (IP) across the entire Homeland Security Enterprise. These days, there are few things as challenging – and critical – as our nation’s coordinated response to the ongoing pandemic. S&T has a number of related COVID-19 efforts underway; most recently, S&T’s IP attorneys worked with inventors from the U.S. Coast Guard Academy (USCGA) to draft and submit patent applications for two important technologies that have the potential to save many lives. As USCGA mechanical engineering professor Dr. Ronald Adrezin puts it, “We’re always innovating, always creating things, and that’s why we have this history with S&T.”
S&T’s IP management program brings inventors from across the department together with IP attorneys from the DHS Office of the General Counsel Intellectual Property Group (OGC IP), who are embedded within S&T. S&T’s IP attorneys interview the inventors, draft the technical description of their new invention, file the patent application, and shepherd the application through the multi-year patenting process. “The cadets and faculty of the Coast Guard Academy have been awarded several patents in the past,” said DHS patent attorney Kelly Hyndman. “They’re a very inventive bunch.”
Back in March, USCGA professor Dr. Andy Foley and Captain Mike Plumley – who, just like Adrezin and the rest of the faculty at USCGA in New London, Connecticut, have extensive industry experience – realized a shortage of ventilators was likely imminent due to increased demand from the COVID-19 pandemic. They decided to try their hands at creating an original design that would be both simple and affordable and then prototyping it. Students in the USCGA Machine Design class and additional faculty soon became involved in the effort, but it wasn’t until a certain ‘eureka moment’ that everything really came together. It happened while Lt. Commander Bryson Jacobs was giving his toddler a bath.
“She has a lot of cups in the bath and I started playing with the cups. I was lifting up water and turning the cups upside down and realized if I change the height of this cup in this bath water, I can regulate the amount of pressure in this cup very precisely. And if there was a hole in it that I could preferentially open and close, I could regulate the amount of volume of air in there just by changing the level of the water. And that’s what really helped me conceive of the idea,” said Jacobs. “And I did the first thing that we train our students to do when they’re approaching a problem – draw a picture. I got on the computer and I started tracing this concept out and it grew from there.”
Jacobs shared his schematic with the team. Lieutenant Junior Grade Savannah Lyle, excited by the idea, immediately went to a hardware store, bought some materials, and built a prototype that proved the concept. Jacobs went on to create multiple new iterations, further refining the mechanism each time. The resulting inverted cylinder design addresses a major challenge the team had been having with the bellows component of the ventilator (an essential mechanism for regulating air flow). The final prototype supplies a precise quantity of air for breathing at a precise pressure, based on the relative heights of water that surround and fill the cylinders.
The entire process, from idea to final prototype, only took about a month-and-a-half for the mechanics whizzes at USCGA. “We have this wealth of knowledge, we all get along, we like creating things, and the students know the last place to look for us is in our office,” said Adrezin as he explained the culture of innovation fostered by USCGA faculty.
In fact, as the ventilator project was underway, a parallel effort began to help address shortages of personal protective equipment for first responders on the front lines. Captain Plumley became aware of a local physician already using a 3D printer to design and create face masks. To support his endeavors, USCGA faculty decided to help test the designs for effectiveness. The mechanical engineers, along with a colleague from the chemistry department, built a vacuum-powered testing apparatus to determine how many airborne particles flowed through the mask. Working in constant coordination with physicians and researchers, the USCGA team has further refined the most promising designs by varying measurements and materials to see what works best. More than 250 masks have already been printed and tested. One design has proven to filter out 90 percent of particles. An N95 mask, as one might expect, filters out 95 percent of particles. N95 masks are recommended for health care workers by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to protect against COVID-19, but not the general public due to shortages.
As engineers and service members, the USCGA faculty has spent years helping each class of students navigate the process of designing, building, and testing prototypes to solve real-world problems. The professors train cadets to be resourceful, as they may find themselves in environments where resources are lacking, such as out at sea or in a remote port. Aside from being composed entirely of components easily purchased at a hardware store, the water bellows design itself is simple and readily-deployable.
“It was pretty cool that I was able to apply my marine safety inspections training to this completely unrelated field just by virtue of the hydrostatic knowledge that I learned as a nineteen-year-old at the academy in my fluid mechanics class,” said Jacobs.
OGC IP is currently guiding the USCGA team through the patent process for both the 3D-printed face mask and the water bellows ventilator so these ingenious solutions can help boost COVID-19 response efforts as quickly as possible. A provisional patent application has already been submitted and a non-provisional patent application is underway for the ventilator – and the face mask is not far behind. Both will be filed under expedited examination to speed up the process. As medical devices, depending on their intended usage, both designs will also need to be approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and/or the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH). Please refer to applicable FDA, OSHA and NIOSH regulations.
Said Hyndman, “the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office’s database of patents is one of the most extensively used databases in the world for technology. Patenting DHS inventions puts our technology in front of the rest of the world so that they can not only learn from it, but perhaps improve upon it. It’s another way that DHS puts the technology that taxpayers paid for into public use.”
As the patent process is underway, the S&T Technology Transfer and Commercialization Branch is evaluating the commercial opportunities for these technologies and how DHS can effectively move these products to market for the widest public benefit.
The COVID-19 pandemic is a global crisis. It is also an opportunity for people to come together for the greater good. These scientific achievements are a prime example of what organizations like the USCGA and S&T are all about – uniting the passions of highly trained scientists and dedicated lifesavers. As Captain Plumley puts it, “it represents the best of what engineers are to the world.”