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Grant Awarded To Look For New Ways To Optimize PPE During Pandemic
April 30, 2020

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.

According to information, 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.

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, Profs. 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.

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