As the spread of COVID-19 sparked a global search for ventilators to help critically ill patients, an international collaboration of particle physicists and engineers pivoted to design a mechanical ventilator made from readily available components.

The ventilator, approved recently by the US Food and Drug Administration for emergency use with COVID-19 patients, came together in about six weeks. The ventilator, known as Mechanical Ventilator Milano, or MVM, is made from a small number of off-the-shelf components in order to facilitate rapid production.

The project was driven by members of the Global Argon Dark Matter Collaboration. The international coalition studies dark matter, a substance that makes up about 85% of the matter in the universe but which cannot be directly observed. Andrew Renshaw, assistant professor of physics at the University of Houston and a member of the collaboration, now is working to ensure quality assurance of the controlling software and to connect the effort with US manufacturers.

“Whenever we do our science, we try to make it open to everybody,” he said. “In our typical day-to-day work, we’re really looking at fundamental science, trying to understand the origin of the universe. This is something that can be used immediately.”

As concern grew over critical shortages of ventilators, which pump oxygen into the lungs and remove carbon dioxide, members of the collaboration took on the challenge to design, develop, build and certify a safe, simple and powerful ventilator.

“It’s made to be as simple as possible to keep costs down, to keep manufacturing simple and fast,” Renshaw said. “The idea is it will be completely open-source. The hardware design, the parts list will all be available. The software itself will be open-source, too, available for any company that wants to manufacture it.”