Last week, California finally received a shipment of life-saving ventilators that the state desperately needed to help in the fight against COVID-19. When the boxes arrived, however, hopes were quickly dashed, as 170 of the ventilators were broken and useless. At least, they were until fuel cell engineer Joe Tavi got a hold of them.
Tavi, an engineer at San Jose-based Bloom Energy, received the call from his boss, Bloom Energy COO, Susan Brennan, telling him that the governor of California was reaching out to them. “Could (we),” she asked, “learn how to fix a ventilator?”
The engineer said he’d sleep on it, then brewed a pot of coffee, downloaded the more than 300-page manual for the LTD 1200 ventilator, and got to work. By 5AM the next morning, Tavi was on the phone with his boss again, telling her, “We can do this … We won’t be able to do it if we don’t try.”
“Once he knew he could do it,” writes Associated Press contributor, Adam Beam, “Tavi gathered with other company engineers to come up with a plan, guided by lots of YouTube videos on ventilator settings and calibrations. The company’s head of supply chain ordered the parts.”
Since then, all of the original 170 broken ventilators that California had received from the Federal Government have been refurbished, along with hundreds more. In all, some 500 ventilators have been repaired in California alone, thanks to the brainpower behind Bloom Energy’s engineering department. To be fair, however, they may have had a fair start. “Bloom Energy makes fuel cells,” explains Beam. “(Fuel cells) combine air and hydrogen to create electricity through a chemical reaction. To get the air and the hydrogen in the right quantities, the fuel cell uses hoses and valves and fans– similar functions to a ventilator.”
With so many lives on the line, it’s easy to understand where Tavi is coming from when he says that the project became something much more personal to him than just “fixing a machine.”
“I would think about my mom or my uncle or a family member of a friend or a co-worker needing one of those machines,” he said. “We don’t view it as a number of units we are turning over. We view it as the maximum number of people we could potentially positively impact by having an extra ventilator that works.”
For the moment, Bloom’s COO, Susan Brennan (remember her, from earlier?) says that the company isn’t profiting from the repairs, but she did say that they could see some sort of reimbursement from the state once the crisis passes.
Here’s hoping they get theirs, then, and that there are more people like Tavi who can take skills like fuel cell expertise and turn into life-saving tech in these troubled times.
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