Public Health & Recreation

Local Diver’s Underwater Rebreathing Technology Could Mask Some Pandemic Problems


Professional diver Michael Lombardi said the rebreather technology he uses for deepwater dives could be used by health-care professionals battling the coronavirus. (Courtesy photos)

Michael Lombardi couldn’t believe what his wife, a Rhode Island physician, told him about her protective mask.

“When the mask supply really got short, she was being asked to reuse a mask day to day,” the Barrington, R.I., resident said, “and she literally has a paper bag in her car with one mask that she’s been allocated from the hospital and, at the end of the day, she takes it off, folds it in half, tries not to touch the outside of it, puts it in the paper bag and takes it out the next day and reuses it.”

And this isn’t an isolated incident. On March 26, Lifespan sent an email to staff announcing that it had a mere two weeks’ worth of N95 face masks left.

Meanwhile, manufacturing companies may be in full mask-making mode, but according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the country will need 3.5 billion face masks during the coronavirus pandemic and that keeping up the production pace will become increasingly difficult.

“And I’m thinking, that’s just a recipe for disaster,” Lombardi said. “No wonder the physicians are getting sick.”

But Lombardi, a professional deepwater diver who runs a Middletown-based diving business, had an idea for a face mask alternative: the rebreather.

“The rebreather does exactly what the name implies — it lets you rebreathe your breath of air,” he said. “Rebreathers chemically remove the CO2 we produce and then mechanically replenish the oxygen that we consume.”

Lombardi has been using rebreathers since 2002, modifying them to suit his deepwater dives.

“They were very, very scarce at that point; we were all kind of learning as we went, and I dived six or seven different commercially available units, and through all that I had to make significant modifications to allow them to do the work I wanted to do, which was often diving deeper than they were supposed to be allowed to dive,” he said.

After years of modifying rebreathers, he started designing custom life-support systems and, when this global pandemic hit, he started to wonder if they could be used in a medical setting.

“It all started underwater, and since 2010 I’ve been scratching my head saying well look at what we can do with this underwater technology,” he said. “We had finally gotten there with our 100 percent custom underwater unit as of two years ago, and we’ve been making and selling those, and so then when the current pandemic popped up, I thought about the limitations in the [N95 and other] masks. Even though they are very inexpensive, a couple bucks a piece or less, they get thrown away, you’ve got a supply issues, and there’s still medical personnel getting sick.”

Lombardi had what he called an “Apollo 13 moment.”

“So, I thought well let’s repurpose our rebreather tech in a lightweight format that could be used by first responders or health-care workers in a compromised environment,” he said. “I dumped all the parts on the table and said, ‘OK, what can we do?’”

The problem with the underwater equipment for use in hospitals now is money and weight, but technological innovation should be able to remove those obstacles in the near future.

He started pitching the idea to physicians, emergency response personnel, and manufacturers, and his idea caught some local attention.

“There’s lots of excitement, though it’s hard to get decisions made quickly,” Lombardi said, “but the general thought is yes, it’s viable, it would be extremely beneficial to have a completely isolated atmosphere.”

One person who immediately thought of Lombardi when the pandemic began to worsen was Chris Goodwin of Goodwin-Bradley manufacturing in Providence. Goodwin knew Lombardi from their time talking with Polaris Industries about its Mars exploration work.

“Mike was taking that tech, this rebreathing tech, and seeing if it could be used to explore space, for Mars exploration,” Goodwin said. “He had some ideas with how to use this rebreather as a life-support system then, so that’s how we started talking.”

Fast forward to the coronavirus pandemic, and Goodwin, as he thought about the state of the world, remembered Lombardi’s rebreather.

“A few weeks ago, I was sitting in my chair, and I said to myself, ‘You know what, this technology would probably help people on the front lines big time,’” Goodwin said. “And so I called Mike and asked him what he thought of the idea and he said, ‘I’ve been working on it all week.’

“I just thought to myself that this product would keep the men and women who are fighting this battle safe. I think that what we’re doing right now is antiquated, maybe it was good in the ’90s, but now it’s like with the technology we have, we should be miles away from where we are now.”

Goodwin helped Lombardi connect with various local and national stakeholders to see if there would be any interest. The duo has since made some high-level contacts with the Federal Emergency Management Agency and the Department of Homeland Security and spoken with some local government officials.

A version of this biosafety hood is being created by Michael Lombardi to help protect health-care workers from the virus.

While there has been interest, the biggest hang-ups are time, money, and weight.

“The biggest drawback is cost — rebreathers go for around $5,000 a piece — and you’d have people having to walk around with a 25-pound backpack all day, which isn’t optimal,” Lombardi said. “But that can improve with research and investment into manufacturing, so those are solvable problems.”

He said he hopes that even if this doesn’t get off the ground now that movers and shakers of the world will see the value of supporting new ideas and innovations in the future.

Part of Lombardi’s fast-track of COVID-19 research and development includes a biosafety hood, which seals at the neck and interfaces with rebreather technology. Health-care workers would be afforded a contained and protected atmosphere, with no exposure to airborne droplets of the virus.

A variation of the hood pictured at right is being adapted to provide oxygen treatment for patients. Developments are underway with an unnamed Rhode Island manufacturer, he said.

“We are actively seeking research investments from any academic or industrial partner to advance this technology, and would advocate investments in similar innovations,” Lombardi said. “If the feds and state would boost the small, independent research groups that have already taken an active role in addressing the COVID-19 PPE [personal protective equipment] and ventilator needs with a rapid response discretionary grant of $25,000 to $50,000, the resulting technologies would be revolutionary both now and in meeting future needs.”

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