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Bloom Energy modifies assembly line to repair ventilators

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Bloom Energy has converted space at its Newark plant to help refurbish old ventilators in the state’s coronavirus response efforts. | PHOTO COURTESY OF BLOOM ENERGY

NEWARK – For the past six years, Bloom Energy has assembled its fuel cell servers at a large plant on the University of Delaware’s STAR Campus in Newark, but this week it added a new product to its work: ventilators.

The sought-after medical machines are in short supply as the swell of coronavirus-infected patients seek treatment in the U.S. Ventilators are common machines in American hospitals, but they have never been needed in such enormous numbers before now.

In simplest terms, ventilators mimic the body’s breathing pattern, delivering oxygen to a patient’s lungs via a tube down the windpipe. COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus, impacts the lungs and can causes complications like pneumonia or acute respiratory distress. Without a ventilator, a COVID-19 patient would be at risk of death.

The first 24 refurbished ventilators completed in its California pilot project are seen ready for delivery. | PHOTO COURTESY OF BLOOM ENERGY

When Bloom founder KR Sridhar heard about the ventilator shortage, but also that governments had stockpiled units more than a decade ago during previous pandemics, he offered to help.

“If you look at the basics [of a ventilator], it has batteries, valves and gears and so it’s not the same function as our fuel cells, but it’s the same base kind of technology,” said Susan Brennan, chief operating officer at Bloom.

With a number of engineers on staff and a plant devoted not only to assembling fuel cells but also repairing those from the field, Brennan said the expertise and resources were right to help.

Sridhar first reached out to Gov. Gavin Newsom in California, where Bloom is headquartered near San Jose, Brennan said. After refurbishing about 24 ventilators that California sent them as a pilot project, Sridhar also reached out to Delaware Gov. John Carney about replicating the work in Newark. On Monday, Bloom received six units at its STAR Campus plant, where a “tiger team” of about four specialists have set aside floor space dedicated to the task.

“They’re working around the clock and I’ve got other meetings today with people in the governor’s office to get the supplies,” Brennan said. “The state is a very, very close-knit state and people get things done quickly in Delaware. So, I expect it will be flowing very quickly.”

Refurbishing the units that have sat in storage since about 2006, when the state responded to the bird flu epidemic, can include different measures, Brennan explained. Some units are practically brand new and only need to be assembled, checked, calibrated and tested while others have degraded hoses, dead batteries or missing parts, requiring more intricate repairs and contacts with original equipment manufacturers that may have spare parts. Brennan added that when original parts cannot be sourced, the Bloom team is finding other usable parts from different manufacturers to get the machines operable.

While the company has initially been working with Carney’s administration on refurbishing the stockpile of several hundred units held by state agencies, it also plans to reach out to state health care organizations about any units they may have in need of repairs, Brennan said.

“It’s been a whirlwind. We’re just proud and honored to be part of the solution and do what we know how to do well in a very targeted way,” she added.

By Jacob Owens

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