Can jet engine tests help COVID-19 research?

  • November 18, 2020


The study, led by University Hospitals of Derby and Burton NHS Foundation Trust (UHDB) and in partnership with the University of Lancaster, aims to understand the spread of droplets in the air when treating patients.

During the pandemic, surgeons have had to perform regular tracheostomies on patients, in which an opening is created in the neck to place a tube into the windpipe. The procedure creates droplets of liquid in the air which could contain pathogens, such as COVID-19. It is hoped the research can discover how far particles travel and how long they remain in the air in a bid to help improve safety for staff in operating theatres.

To do this, Rolls-Royce engineers were called in to monitor how far droplets can travel through the air, using technology that is normally used to test jet engines. When testing our engines, we use high-speed cameras to capture tests in minute levels of detail.

The cameras capture 8,000 frames per second, allowing engineers to study how an engine behaves in a range of conditions. In this study, the same cameras are being used to help analysts to create a more three-dimensional understanding of how far the droplets travel. Once a procedure has been recorded, the data is sent to the University of Lancaster for further analysis.

Eve George, Imaging Engineer at Rolls-Royce, operates the cameras and says using them in this way has been unique for her and her team.

Eve says: “We test our engines and components to the limit, using high-speed cameras to capture incredible levels of detail. Working with patients instead of jet engines was very different to our day job, but it’s great that we’ve been able to apply our technology to help keep NHS staff safer while treating patients.”

Dr Bindy Sahota, Consultant Head and Neck Surgeon at the Trust, is leading the research. He said: “We want to make it safer for the staff who perform these procedures and who have spent so much time with the patients already.

“Many of the patients for this trial are having so much difficulty with breathing that they transferred to our Intensive Care Unit and after a while, it can become necessary to perform a tracheostomy to aid the patient with their breathing and this is particularly common in COVID-19 patients.”

The study is hoped to deliver benefits beyond the pandemic.

Professor Owen Judd, Consultant Ear, Nose and Throat Surgeon at UHDB and co-lead for the study, hopes that the findings from the study go on to provide benefits beyond the pandemic:

“During the pandemic, we have had to adapt and change our methods to reduce infection rates with a number of procedures if they’re shown to generate aerosol droplets. Eventually, this will be looking at all similar procedures to see which produce more droplets than others so that we can continue to make these procedures safer for our staff.”

Despite the study being in its infancy, there are already positive signs. Preliminary results suggest that by adapting the technique for performing tracheostomies, aerosolised COVID-19 can be reduced.