A sulfur hexafluoride (SF(6)) washin/washout technique was developed using an ultrasonic flowmeter to measure functional residual capacity (FRC) during mechanical ventilation. The ultrasonic flowmeter measures simultaneously flow and molar mass of the mainstream gas. Ventilation distribution was studied using moment ratios analysis (alveolar-based mean dilution number). Accuracy and precision of the measurement technique were tested in a mechanical lung model, and the method's sensitivity to changes of FRC was assessed in seven ventilated rabbits and six children. In the mechanical lung model with a volume range from 10 to 60 mL, the mean error of FRC measurement was 0.096 +/- 0.9 mL (range, 0-2 mL). In seven rabbits (mean body weight, 3.6 kg), measurements of FRC and alveolar-based mean dilution number were made at positive end-expiratory pressures (PEEP) of 0, 3, and 6 cm H(2)O. The mean coefficient of variation of 66 FRC-measurements was 5.5% (range, 0-15.3%). As the applied PEEP increased, mean FRC per kilogram body weight increased from 13.3 +/- 3.4 mL/kg (PEEP of 0 cm H(2)O) to 16.7 +/- 3.6 mL/kg (PEEP of 3 cm H(2)O) and to 20.8 +/- 4.3 mL/kg (PEEP of 6 cm H(2)O). Alveolar-based mean dilution number decreased accordingly from 1.94 +/- 0.42 (PEEP = 0; mean +/- SD), to 1.91 +/- 0.45 (PEEP = 3) and to 1.59 +/- 0.35 (PEEP = 6). In the six children, as applied PEEP increased, mean FRC per kilogram increased from 21.1 +/- 4.51 mL/kg (PEEP = 0), to 22.4 +/- 1.8 mL/kg (PEEP = 5) and 27.2 +/- 3.4 mL/kg (PEEP = 10). FRC measurement using the ultrasonic flowmeter is accurate and simple to use in ventilated and spontaneously breathing children.