UMass College of Engineering Researcher on Team Developing COVID-19 ‘Breathalyzer’

Jonathan Rothstein
Jonathan Rothstein

AMHERST, Mass. - Professor Jonathan Rothstein, mechanical and industrial engineering, is part of a multi-institutional research team developing a new collection system for COVID-19 testing that will allow for rapid diagnosing via a device similar to a breathalyzer.

Currently, the bottleneck around ramping up testing capabilities is hampering many states from being able to re-open parts of their economy safely. A cheap, massively deployable, rapid diagnostic and sentinel system that detects respiratory illnesses and airborne threats would help address the issue, says Rothstein.

The research is funded by a $150,000 grant from the National Science Foundation’s Grants for Rapid Response Research (RAPID). RAPID is an NSF program used for proposals having a severe urgency with regard to availability of or access to data, facilities, or specialized equipment, including quick-response research on natural or anthropogenic disasters and similar unanticipated events.

“We are using continuous dropwise condensation to collect samples from exhaled breath without the need for invasive nasal swabs,” said Rothstein about this new “breathalyzer” approach to coronavirus testing. “This NSF grant is the first step. We are now working on going after NIH funds with the hopes of commercializing our technology and rolling it out in the fall. We are really excited about this work and the technology we developed. We believe it can make a big impact on the fight against COVID-19.”

Rothstein is part of a team of researchers from the University of California Los Angeles and Northeastern University, led by Pirouz Kavehpour of UCLA.

Researchers say because the virus is transmitted through aerosolized droplets in exhaled breath, through the rapid condensation process, they expect to collect enough samples from one minute of breathing to enable testing through existing protocols, such as Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR), which allows identification of pathogenic organisms that are difficult to culture by detecting their DNA or RNA.

Additionally, researchers are exploring innovative detection techniques that can be used to further accelerate the testing process, so that results would be given at the time of testing.  

Rothstein said a quicker, massively deployed testing device, combined with contact tracing and quarantine restrictions would help minimize the impact of the disease on the economy, society and the healthcare system. 

Additionally, effective sentinel monitoring of local environments can detect the presence of dangerous levels of virus, preventing mass spreading events.

The first objective of this NSF project is to optimize its CDC method through detailed fluid dynamics and heat and mass transfer experiments and simulations to maximize the volume of exhaled air condensate and particulate load extracted from a “simulated” patient within a clinically reasonable testing period. 

The second objective is to fully design, fabricate, and characterize a simple, inexpensive patient interface which utilizes the team’s new CDC collector. 

“The resulting device will be easily mass-produced, non-invasive, prevent cross-contamination and provide a means to permit standard swab used for testing,” said Rothstein. “Additionally, due to the open surface collection design of the CDC collector, the initial design of our system can be modified readily into either a point-of-care, rapid diagnostic test, or into an environmental sentinel sampling/testing system.”