CBIS News and Events

With NSF Support, Engineers Look for New Ways to Optimize PPE During Pandemic

TROY, N.Y. — An interdisciplinary team of engineers from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute is answering a national call for solutions to the shortage of personal protective equipment (PPE) available in the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic.

With the support of a newly awarded National Science Foundation Rapid Response Research (RAPID) grant, two Rensselaer researchers plan to examine ways to equip N95 respirator masks with antiviral properties and the ability to withstand sterilization. These improvements would better protect health care workers and enable the current supply of masks to last longer.

N95 masks are designed using very small electrostatically charged fibers that help prevent aerosolized droplets of the virus from penetrating through the mask material. The design, while effective, doesn’t lend itself to disinfection and reuse, further exacerbating the effects of a limited supply.

“They are designed to be taken off and thrown away immediately after you’ve seen a patient,” said Helen Zha, an assistant professor of chemical and biological engineering and a member of the Center for Biotechnology and Interdisciplinary Studies at Rensselaer (CBIS). “The idea we have in mind is to develop a process where someone in the hospital can apply a very thin coating of an inexpensive polymer material to the mask stock that they already have, that will give it antiviral properties and also enable sterilization procedures.”

“Our proposed technology would make the mask self-disinfect by inactivating viral particles on contact. If successful, such a technology might enable health care workers to safely use the same mask for longer periods of time,” said Edmund Palermo, an assistant professor of materials science and engineering and a member of the Center for Materials, Devices, and Integrated Systems (cMDIS) at Rensselaer.

Zha’s expertise in making ultrathin protein and polymer coatings on surfaces, combined with Palermo’s expertise in antimicrobial polymers, form an ideal partnership for this research effort.

“The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted a multitude of multidisciplinary challenges that CBIS and cMDIS at Rensselaer are uniquely positioned to tackle together in partnership,” said Deepak Vashishth, the director of CBIS. “This type of engineering solution to a human health problem could make a vast difference in the worldwide effort to protect medical workers.”

Together, the team will examine which commercially available, highly charged polymers could deactivate viruses like the one that causes COVID-19, increase the mask’s barrier to the virus, and maintain the protective properties of the mask through sterilization — all while preserving breathability. The researchers are targeting reagents that are readily available and nontoxic, in an effort to make the method they develop safe and easily deployable on a global scale.

Once their research is complete, Zha and Palermo will work with a team at Mount Sinai to deploy this coating in order to confirm its feasibility in a hospital setting. The team will then share its findings with other researchers and the public through open accessible channels.

“As soon as we can have modified masks validated and certified, we hope to disseminate a DIY kit for application of the coating to existing masks,” Palermo said.

“We want the information to be widely accessible, so that other people, whether they’re in Brazil, or India, or somewhere else in this country, can potentially do this themselves,” Zha said.

The RAPID funding mechanism is designed to support quick-response research projects during disasters. As the world waits for a vaccine, a solution like this could reduce a critical supply strain while better protecting both health care personnel and the broader public.

“This is definitely a rapid project, and it is definitely an urgent project,” Zha said.