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How to build a lightweight biosafety cabinet that can be transported easily?

Image credit: Unsplash/CDC

Subash Chapagain
Subash Chapagain May 25, 2022
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Biosafety cabinets are a kind of biocontainment platform that is used in biological and diagnostic laboratories to protect the person doing the experiment/analysis, or alternatively to protect the product/sample being assessed. There are different types of BSCs, depending on the risk associated with the biological sample involved. Biosafety cabinets are where lab technicians process your swab samples before they analyze them with the PCR machine (and this is just one example of BSC usage.) Currently, biosafety cabinets are mostly used as stationary, static equipment that once installed inside a laboratory is not usually expected to change place. This is particularly due to the fact that to offer safety and protection to users, BSCs use directional airflow with the help of heavy motorised air pumps coupled with filters, increasing the overall weight of the system and making them static and fixed.
The usage of biosafety cabinets cannot be understated, even more so during disease outbreaks and pandemics. However, the present-day design makes them highly inaccessible from the perspective of rural towns and villages without diagnostic laboratories. Here, the challenge is to come up with a bottom-up design for a lightweight biosafety cabinet that can be transported easily as needed, quickly in response to the dynamic demands of disease outbreaks. Such a biosafety cabinet is needed for the following reasons:
  • Some biological samples (eg RNA) have very short half-lives, and they need to be processed as soon as possible. Having a BSC in place of sample/specimen collection would allow to process of the samples and hence preserve the sample integrity
  • A lightweight biosafety cabinet can be mass-produced and distributed even in rural areas and used for routine pathogen surveillance and monitoring
  • Having a biosafety cabinet in place will reduce the cost of shuttling samples to the dedicated labs
There are some fundamental design questions regarding such a cabinet:
  • What kind of motors would best suit the cabinet to maintain the desired airflow?
  • What kind of disinfection apparatus could be the best? (For eg UV light)
  • What material could be used as the lightest but strongest option to build the frame and body of the cabinet?
  • What off-grid power source could be used to operate the fans?
To start with, I would think something in the line of camping tents, but much more robust, and equipped with HEPA filters all around.
Creative contributions

Reduce the "amount of air" you are transporting

jnikola May 26, 2022
My suggestion is to reduce the size of the biosafety cabinet by reducing the "amount of air" you are transporting with it. In other words, why carry a huge box of air?
  • Although these cabinets are often heavy because they are equipped with filters, huge glass, metal surfaces, and others, they are non-transportable due to their size. However, most of their size is just an empty space.
  • Even if you make the cabinet smaller (and thus reduce the volume of air), you get exactly that - a small benchtop cabinet and you lose the space for performing experiments. This is also a nice example of a transportable cabinet, but it's tiny.
How would it work?
Making it foldable
Since we don't care exactly which air we'll use for pipetting as long as it has a laminar flow and deter all the microbes from our sample, we could pack only the filters, ventilators and other surfaces in a shape of a foldable set. Filters and ventilators would be a non-foldable part while everything else can be made from folding panels. Surfaces that are usually made from glass can now be made from plastic, too, to make it easily collapsable when being transported. However, the key is not to reduce the working space, because you need space for pipetting, sampling, etc., but to make it somehow foldable while transporting.
Creating a system that works like a kitchen hood
If we created a system that has the ability to ventilate and filter huge amount of air in a directed laminar manner, without the need for enclosed box design, we could just leave it at any table, desinfect, turn it on and start working. The system would be designed like shown on the photo below. The design is just an idea and detailed examination of its ability to stop contaminations should be performed.
What do you think? Is this a good tactic to make the cabinets transportable and lightweight?
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Subash Chapagain
Subash Chapagain2 years ago
Thank you for the detailed response. Your idea really seems interesting. However, the design seems to be a bit too compromising in terms of the free space it allows. Often, we need to have sufficient space for pipetting; tube holders, vortexes, spins, pipette holders, and discard bins, all need to fit in the space, all the while not disturbing the 'laminar' airflow. Any kind of turbulence needs to be avoided because it means aerosol, and aerosol is what we want to prevent from forming inside the cabinet in terms of biosafety. Hence, a smaller 'handling' size seems to have the disadvantage of increased turbulence inside the cabinet. Other than that, as you pointed out, using lightweight materials to replace glass should be possible. One thing to keep in mind is that the replacement material should be compatible (chemically) with alcohol/bleaching. (I remember when I joined my current lab I ruined the plexiglass of one of our BSCs by spraying alcohol all over it :D ). One thing that I would want to figure out though is a way to plug-and-play an air-pumping system (with filters). I do not have enough engineering expertise for this.
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