Preventing the spread of COVID-19 in NHS facilities with UK innovation

We speak to Carl Stephen Patrick Hunter OBE, chief executive of Coltraco Ultrasonics, about how its innovative new air leak detection solution, Portascanner COVID19, is helping the NHS to keep patients and staff safe

The Portascanner COVID19 is based on technology originally developed for the Royal Navy

In our lifetime, there has rarely been a greater sense of camaraderie than observed over the past year.

In March 2020 the world was forced to stop, readjust, and overcome the barriers the Coronavirus pandemic inflicted upon us all.

But, while it has sadly been a tragedy for so many businesses, households, and livelihoods; it has by no means stopped great British ideas, ingenuity, and innovation.

“The 5.9 million UK SMEs, which make up 99% of all business, generating 54% of all UK employment, have demonstrated remarkable resilience in the face of such adversity, and are at the forefront of the Government’s ‘Levelling-Up’ agenda in the post-COVID-19 world that we are all starting to see at the end of the tunnel,” says Carl Stephen Patrick Hunter OBE, chief executive of Coltraco Ultrasonics.

The ‘patch and hope’ problem

“Our NHS struggled to bear the brunt of this virus, and its staff should not also have to constantly concern themselves with the risks of being additionally exposed to the virus.

“And existing measures are not allowing this concern to be allayed.”

Our NHS struggled to bear the brunt of this virus, and its staff should not also have to constantly concern themselves with the risks of being additionally exposed to the virus

In intensive care units (ICU), for example, the NHS has to ‘negatively pressurise’ each ICU ward to prevent COVID-19 infection contagion within the rest of the hospital.

However, if the air permeability of ICU wards is not sufficiently low, negative pressurisation cannot be achieved effectively.

But the methods presently being undertaken to verify air permeability, are disruptive, costly, and do not allow operators to identify specific areas of leakage.

And maintenance teams have limited means to monitor the airflow that sustains negative or positive pressurisation, or identify the location and size of any specific leaks, leaving any remedial action down to mere speculation.

So limited are these means that healthcare personnel are forced to adopt an approach that can only be described as ‘patch and hope’.

The solution

Coltraco Ultrasonics’ Portascanner COVID-19 precise leak detection system brings a non-invasive answer to this ‘patch and hope’ measure, and, with minimal training, allows healthcare and pharmaceutical personnel to locate, and then quantify, the leaks in hospital wards, cleanrooms, and sterilisation departments.

And it is an example of how British industries have galvanised to innovate in response to the pandemic.

Hunter said: “Users can calculate the airflow rate through these leaks, generating an air permeability value for an entire room/ward, which the user can compare against the required value for pressurisation.

“Quantifying the extent of the leak, or the air permeability rate, in this way is crucial to ensuring positive/negative pressurisation in order to help prevent the spread of disease.”

He adds: “During COVID-19, maintenance of wards has never been more important, and this new hand-held instrument significantly improves the efficiency and air quality of the room, providing confidence in the ability of a ward to contain the virus.

During COVID-19, maintenance of wards has never been more important, and this new hand-held instrument significantly improves the efficiency and air quality of the room, providing confidence in the ability of a ward to contain the virus

“Furthermore, it saves considerable time and resources in preventing fan pressurisation equipment (FPE) from being installed in an unsuitable room.

“The downtime required for existing test procedures is simply infeasible given the disruption to treatment this would cause. So, through using ultrasound, this innovation ensures minimum disruption to any room or facility, lending more time for staff to treat their patients.

“This pressurisation is also crucial to hazardous pharmaceutical drugs, and highly-infectious diseases such as Ebola, where sterilised environments must be maintained.”

The device was developed in response to a UK-Government-funded COVID-19 emergency technology call to arms

Going above and beyond compliance

According to the BSRIA, the air permeability of a negatively-pressurised isolation ward must not exceed 2.5m³/(h-m²) at a reference pressure of 50 Pascals.

And it is this value that is used in the reporting feature of the Portascanner COVID-19.

“The user can provide evidence of the maintenance programme, through the camera feature, and, with the tap of a finger, export a test report, all in one small portable instrument,” said Hunter.

“Each leak is therefore marked and quantified in terms of the air flow rate, and its contribution to the total air permeability.

“This is then calculated and compared to the threshold value, while the cross-sectional area of the leak is also recorded.

“No third party is required, and all the user has to do is a quick test, scanning any possible leak sites with the receiver, while the generator is directed at the structure from the opposite side.

“Any peaks in the received intensity should be marked as a leak for potential investigation and remedial measures if necessary.

“A full test is then carried out to decipher the leak size.”

Sufficient airtightness is required to facilitate good ventilation and filtration practices, so that ‘safe working’ conditions be achieved, which is at the heart of improving the ‘health’ of a building.

And Portascanner COVID19 can be used regularly by in-house maintenance teams when required, with no disruption, enabling leaks to be detected and remedied as they occur.

The systems works by scanning any possible leak sites with a receiver, while the generator (pictured) is directed at the structure from the opposite side

Overcoming a global pandemic

Coltraco Ultrasonics developed Portascanner COVID19 from its rich heritage in Naval ultrasonic technologies to monitor watertightness in warships and submarines.

At the beginning of 2020, the company was predominantly a two-market sector firm.

However, in March the team realised the vulnerability that this posed, and the possible opportunity for change.

At Coltraco Ultrasonics, we were fortunate enough that we could put our heads together and realise that we could play our small part in supporting our NHS, from within our very walls

So, through great diversification, it is now a multi-sectoral firm, working across 25 different sectors, delivered by an exclusive global distribution network.

And one of these new sectors is healthcare.

“During the Coronavirus crisis, Coltraco Ultrasonics worked tirelessly to fulfil a UK-Government-funded COVID-19 emergency technology requirement in June 2020 to design the Portascanner COVID-19, which was created by a team of British physicists working at the cutting edge of compartmentation integrity,” explains Hunter.

“The primary aim was to support the NHS and to protect the lives of both staff and patients.”

The Portascanner COVID-19 is based on the technology of the company’s award-winning, globally-recognised Portascanner WATERTIGHT, an ultrasonic watertight integrity monitor used by our Royal Navy, which has been redesigned specifically for this new market.

It aims to reduce the spread of airborne disease by inspecting rooms for any leakage and establishing the pressurised airflow rates that, unless identified, can place staff and patients at risk.

A December 2020 study on COVID-19 and air contamination indicates that 56% of air samples taken from hospital hallways, and 24% from hospital bathrooms, have high levels of Coronavirus (JAMA Network Open).

And samples from ICU rooms were more than twice as likely to be positive, at a rate of 25.2% compared to 10.7% for non-ICU rooms.

“There is evidently a pressing need for the virus to be contained,” said Hunter.

“And, in order to reduce the spread, negative or positive pressurisation must be achieved.”

The UK Government grant enabled the company to put innovation to the test, and design its unique solution.

Hunter said: “During the height of the pandemic, every Thursday evening the moving sound of ‘Clap for Heroes’ would resonate as we all applauded and showed our appreciation for our NHS.

“At Coltraco Ultrasonics, we were simply fortunate enough that we could put our heads together and realise that we could play our small part in supporting our NHS, from within our very walls.

“This Emergency COVID-19 Technology grant enabled us to develop a technology to assist with problems relating directly, or indirectly, to this pandemic.

While this past year has proved an insurmountable obstacle to overcome for so many, there is now light at the end of the tunnel, that through innovation and collective unity, we can all come together and rebuild stronger than before

“And we realised we could contribute to the prevention of the spread of airborne pathogens, and thereby significantly reduce the contamination between wards, which also includes harmful substances such as bacteria, gases, chemicals etc.”

The solution has been able to measure, to a high accuracy, holes as small as 0.5mm in diameter, which would be almost invisible to the naked eye.

“Applying ultrasonics to this new application has never been done before and this will allow the first means of reliably and conveniently testing a key requirement for effective pressurisation,” said Hunter.

“While this past year has proved an insurmountable obstacle to overcome for so many, there is now light at the end of the tunnel, that through innovation and collective unity, we can all come together and rebuild stronger than before.