Nvidia's chief scientist designs a cheap ventilator to help fight COVID-19

The ventilator uses parts that cost about $400 and can even be 3D-printed.

Shara Tibken Former managing editor
Shara Tibken was a managing editor at CNET News, overseeing a team covering tech policy, EU tech, mobile and the digital divide. She previously covered mobile as a senior reporter at CNET and also wrote for Dow Jones Newswires and The Wall Street Journal. Shara is a native Midwesterner who still prefers "pop" over "soda."
Shara Tibken
4 min read
Enlarge Image

A render shows what Dally's ventilator will look like. 


Ventilators for COVID-19 patients are in short supply, but Nvidia's chief scientist thinks he's found a solution.

Bill Dally, head of the graphics chip maker's research operations, on Friday published an open-source design for a cheap, simple, easy-to-assemble ventilator. The machine differs from some other emergency ventilators in that it regulates air pressure, flow and volume, letting doctors more closely regulate and monitor the oxygen being pumped into the lungs of coronavirus patients. 

"Many people are proposing to build emergency ventilators, some of which don't actually regulate pressure," Dally said in an interview. They "could potentially harm somebody."

Dally's machine uses parts that are readily available and cost about $400. The key components are a proportional solenoid valve and a microcontroller to regulate the flow of gas through the valve to the patient. Amid the pandemic, those can be difficult to find, with the valves and sensors both taking about six weeks to arrive, Dally said. To get around the shortage, the parts can be 3D printed, he said, and the main pieces of the machine can be assembled in about five minutes. 

Watch this: The ventilator shortage, explained

The machine also has sensors to "measure airflow, compensate for valve inaccuracy, control maximum pressure, enable patient-initiated breathing and monitor for alarm conditions, among other features," according to an Nvidia blog post. 

The aim is to bring down the cost even lower than $400 and well below the $20,000 price of normal ventilators, Dally said. 

"The goal is to get this down to $100," said Dally, who has led Nvidia's research team since 2009. He holds more than 120 patents and has taught classes and conducted research at the California Institute of Technology, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Stanford University, where he chaired the computer science department. 

A pneumonia-like disease, the novel coronavirus was discovered in the Chinese city of Wuhan in December. Cities and entire countries have imposed lockdowns, shuttering stores, canceling events and forcing citizens to stay at home to help contain the virus' spread. Tens of millions have lost their jobs as a result, and hospitals face severe shortages of basic protective equipment. Ventilator shortages have been a particular concern for hospitals battling COVID-19. 

In critical COVID-19 infections, the lungs become so damaged that patients can no longer breathe on their own. To remedy this, doctors pass a tube down the windpipe, connecting it to an instrument that resembles a standing desk with tentacles. The machine, replete with knobs, switches, buttons and a digital screen, takes control of breathing. It mixes oxygen with air, warming the gas and pushing it into the lungs. Some COVID-19 patients have been on ventilators for more than a month as their bodies try to fight off the virus. 

An estimated 5% of all COVID-19 patients will need ventilators at some point during their treatment. But there aren't enough ventilators available to help all of the expected sick patients. New machines are expensive and take a long time to build. Because patients stay on them so long, some countries, like Italy, have had to make difficult decisions about who will actually have access to a ventilator, essentially choosing who will live or die. 

A simple machine

Dally started working on his ventilator a few weeks ago and drew on his contacts at major research universities and hospitals. He ultimately decided to build a machine with a solenoid valve, which uses an electromagnet to squeeze a valve open and shut. Dally also used a microcontroller -- a cheap basic computer -- out of his homemade wine cellar cooling system. 

Enlarge Image

Bill Dally, Nvidia's chief scientist, has created an inexpensive and simple ventilator for COVID-19 patients. 


Dally's machine, housed in a hard-sided briefcase, is about as wide and long as a US letter. 

"It is reasonably portable," Dally said. "Hopefully it won't need to be used ... but I could see it being used in regular hospitals if they run out of ventilators ... [or in] other areas around the world that don't have the resources we have."

Dally at first tested his machine at home and later turned to the Palo Alto, California, VA health system to try it on a sophisticated lung simulator. 

"It worked in the way that was expected and needed in treating patients," Dally said. 

The only hitch is that it's unclear how or when the machines would be built in high quantities. The hope is that by open-sourcing the machine technology, the design proves easy for others to build as needed. 

Dally's machine also hasn't yet received regulatory approval. He's in the process of seeking emergency use authorization from the US Food and Drug Administration, a status that's been granted to other ventilator designers, including NASA

CNET's Jackson Ryan contributed to this report. 

Fighting coronavirus: COVID-19 tests, vaccine research, masks, ventilators and more

See all photos