COVID-19: Bloom Energy tiger team pivots to rescue ventilators

Bloom Energy of San Jose, California, normally makes and services fuel cell generators, but recently began refurbishing ventilators desperately needed to treat COVID-19 patients.

An urgent request from California Gov. Gavin Newsom on March 28 to repair 170 ventilators that weren’t working helped spur Bloom’s effort along.

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It’s the kind of work that engineers often regard as a challenge: pivot as needed.

 “To understand ventilators specifically, I downloaded a manual from the internet and spent a night reading it to understand what might be involved.  What I found is that the premise of a ventilator is similar to fuel cell technology,” said Joe Tavi, senior director of manufacturing at Bloom in an email to FierceElectronics.

“The ventilators we are getting have run the gamut from new, to past warranty, to out-of-certification,” said Joe Tavi, senior director of manufacturing for Bloom.  “Some have been still in the box and were stockpiled in anticipation of an eventual need. Some need to be put together, some need their batteries changed or their pumps or valves switched out.  In some cases, the ventilators have been used and put into storage because a newer model came out. We run functional tests on all the units and that lets us know the scope of work.”

Bloom started with a small “tiger team” that has grown to a couple dozen (out of a global company of 1,200), including engineers of many disciplines.

 “There are so many similarities in the physics involved in fuel cells and ventilators that it wasn’t terribly difficult to figure out,” Tavi said. “As our supply has increased, so has the variety of ventilator manufacturers, and each is just a bit different.”

Bloom builds and services its own fuel cells and the nature of the work with ventilators is comparable. “Fuel cells rely on moving air and hydrogen while ventilators move air and oxygen, both flowing at designated rates and pressures,” Tavi pointed out.

Tavi is probably too modest about the skills involved.  He said Bloom engineers stepped up to the ventilator repairs out of a sense of mission. Bloom has developed a reputation for providing green energy to companies, and Bloom’s founder and CEO KR Sridhar had been prodded initially by the governor to help out, so Bloom raised its hand. Plus, Bloom had a decade of manufacturing experience on fuel cells, so it took just five hours to refurbish its first ventilator, according the company website.

“Many of us joined Bloom because it’s a mission-driven organization,” Tavi said. “That’s what is driving us in our work today. We strongly believe it is our responsibility to do what we can in times of need.”

In addition to repairing ventilators, the company is rapidly deploying servers and microgrids to provide electricity to field hospitals that are accepting overflow of COVID-19 patients.

The company has set up its web site to accept requests for ventilators needing refurbishment and so far has repaired 1,000 machines in Sunnyvale and Newark, Delaware.“We have capacity to do twice that many per week,” Tavi said. “We’ll continue doing this as long as we need to.”

Many engineers outside of Bloom are finding ways to help with the COVID-19 crisis, but their skills equip them for other types of crises in the U.S. and the rest of the world. “I would tell other engineers that their skills are incredibly valuable and transferrable,” Tavi said. “While this skill set is often seen as inflexible and specific, the fact of the matter is that it allows us a lot more creativity than many people realize.  We have incredible opportunities because of what we do. We believe in the art of the possible.”