Received Research Funding from the National Science Foundation: KFUPM Graduate Contributes to Innovating a Less Expensive and More Effective Device for "COVID-19" Test

June 11, 2020  |   Innovation

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KFUPM graduate Ali Al-Shehri.

Mr. Ali al-Shehri, a KFUPM graduate from the Department of Mechanical Engineering who had a scholarship to the University of California, is contributing to innovating an effective method to diagnose Coronavirus (COVID-19) with a highly effective low-cost diagnostic method. The Breathalyzer-like diagnostic tool deliver results in no more than 10 minutes.

The National Science Foundation (NSF) agreed to develop a project based on Al-Shehri idea. A research team, led by Pirouz Kavehpour, professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering in the UCLA Samueli School of Engineering, was formed. The team has received a one-year, $150,000 research grant from the National Science Foundation to manufacture low cost, fast diagnosis devices that will help to face the coronavirus pandemic.

Al-Shehri, said that the idea arose during a two and a half year scientific research. In this research, I was trying to find an effective way to collect water from air for the purpose of desalination, I use an unusual way to extract water by condensing it on a treated surface and in large quantities compared to the currently used technologies. Upon the spread of COVID-19, the laboratory experiments were stopped. I and my supervisor, Professor Pirouz Kavehpour, thought about alternative ways to continue our scientific research. I suggested using the same technique to condense the vapor in the human breath (exhalation) and use it to check for the presence of the virus.

Professor Kavehpour expressed his admiration for the idea and formed a team consisting of six persons belonging to three different universities. The device was designed to be easy to manufacture. Some features were added to makes it a competitive device.

The idea of ​​the device is similar to the one used in infrared breath alcohol test (Breathalyzer). The device consists of two parts: The first part collects the liquid sample that contains the virus, while the second detects the virus using light radiation. For the coronavirus test, a person would exhale into the device for about a minute. Water vapor from their breath would condense on a special plate. Live virus could then be screened by using fluorescent genetic tags that light up if the virus is present. It could take about 10 minutes to show results. The device can also be used to detect other infectious diseases and airborne viral threats by continuously monitoring the air of indoor environments, such as hospitals, schools and airports, for the presence of the dangerous levels of virus.

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The device's features surpass the current diagnostic methods

Al-Shehri said that the device will outperform the current test methods in several aspects. Now, the sample is taken from inside the nose by inserting a long stick into the nose or mouth. This method may frighten some people and lead to avoid the test procedure. As a result, the responsible authorities will experience difficulty to know the infected people and make the precautions procedures such as isolation of cases and contact tracing. A number of studies have shown that the current method may lead to some side effects such as infection, but with the new technique, we hope to avoid these problems.

The duration of obtaining the result is another feature of the device. Samples taken in the current technique need to be sent to a laboratory equipped with real time reverse transcription–polymerase chain reaction (RT–PCR). Time of test results are affected by other factors such as the maximum number of samples used in the device and the availability of labor and may take from hours to days. In the new device, the expected time is only 10 minutes, according to the preliminary experiments.

The size and the price of the device, as well as the cost of its operation, will be affordable. It does not require large-sized and expensive equipment, and can be done by anyone with a simple training, which will help to conduct a large number of test.

The expected time to turn this idea into a commercial product

Al-Shehri mentioned that the team has prepared a prototype for the first part of the device, the process of collecting the sample. This part can be used to collect the sample and send it to a laboratory equipped with real time reverse transcription–polymerase chain reaction (RT–PCR).

For the second part of the device, the team may complete it by next September. They hope that the integrated device will be available before the beginning of 2021. In addition to the $150,000 research grant from the National Science Foundation, the team is discussing the project with other support agencies to accelerate the manufacturing and testing process.

How will the project contribute in facing COVID-19 pandemic?

Al-Shehri said: The time is an essential factor in this pandemic. The limited number of tests performed and the complexity of the testing equipment have delayed the return to normal economic and social life. Scientists, also, expects a second wave after lifting lockdown, therefore there was an urgent need to find ways to speed up the process of detecting the disease and preventing its spread.

Mr. Ali Al-Shehri, had his bachelor’s degree in 2014 and the master’s degree in 2017 from King Fahd University of Petroleum & Minerals and received a PhD scholarship to the University of California. His research interests focus on the condensation of water vapor on surfaces in highly effective and efficient ways