Fabric Discovery Center Aids Companies with PPE Testing and Design
State and Federal Grants Support Testing and Emergency Manufacturing Efforts
By Katharine Webster
Last winter, amid nationwide shortages of hospital equipment and personal protective equipment (PPE) for health care workers treating patients with COVID-19, Massachusetts quickly assembled a task force to help manufacturers pivot to producing masks, gowns, ventilators and testing equipment.
UMass Lowell was one of three universities selected to play a role — and the university’s Fabric Discovery Center won a grant for nearly $131,000 from the task force, the Massachusetts Manufacturing Emergency Response Team (Mass MERT), to buy high-level, industry-standard testing equipment for PPE.
Within a week, staff for the university’s Core Research Facilities were testing masks and materials for the state Emergency Management Agency, hospitals and doctors, as well as area companies that were rapidly changing their production lines to meet the demand for N95 masks and hospital gowns.
Now, faculty are expanding their research into creating better mask designs and materials, too, says Vice Chancellor for Research and Economic Development Julie Chen, a professor and expert in nanotechnology and materials processing.
“Mask design has not changed a lot in decades, and we all know that they are not comfortable to wear all day,” Chen says. “With all of our testing facilities and our research faculty with expertise in materials and aerosols, we can contribute to better design.”
The testing and research team at the Fabric Discovery Center is directed on-site by Plastics Engineering Prof. Ramaswamy Nagarajan, who does research on “smart” fabrics and is the university’s representative to Advanced Functional Fabrics of America (AFFOA), a government partnership with industry and academia.
The team has worked with multiple companies to improve their PPE designs, materials and processes before trying to obtain government certification.
“We want to make it possible for manufacturers across the country to produce more emergency equipment,” Nagarajan says. “Everybody wants to make PPE right now, and they want to know how good their prototypes are.”
Helping Industry Make Better PPE Faster
Early on, Nagarajan and his team ran multiple tests on filtering fabrics and then prototypes for a new N95 respirator, the result of a collaboration between W.L. Gore & Associates (makers of GORE-TEX fabrics and other advanced materials) and Ford Motor Co.
When the prototypes consistently passed all of the tests with flying colors, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) certified the respirator in less than two weeks — a process that normally takes months, says Arlene Parquette, associate vice chancellor for industry partnerships and economic development.
“Their testing really helped expedite the whole certification process,” she says. “When Ford submitted all of the UML testing center data to NIOSH and they were able to see that those results were good, they prioritized that respirator for approval.”
The testing effort began in March, when members of Gov. Charlie Baker’s team approached Chen to discuss how UMass Lowell could contribute to the state’s emergency manufacturing effort.
The very next day, Chen, Nagarajan and Claire Lepont, senior technical program director at the Fabric Discovery Center, spoke with several companies to assess their needs. Then they assembled a team that includes Parquette, as liaison to industry, and Dhimiter Bello, associate dean of the Zuckerberg College of Health Sciences and principal investigator on the state grant for the testing equipment.
Bello, a professor of biomedical and nutritional sciences, studies respiratory health in relation to aerosolized toxins and has extensive research experience in aerosols, evaluation of PPE efficiency under field conditions and human biomonitoring.
“Transmission of viruses through airborne aerosols is an important pathway for infection, and even though we work with engineered nanoparticles and highly toxic chemicals, not viruses, the technology and science behind aerosolized viruses and nanoparticles is similar,” Bello says.
Engineering technician Patrick Casey does much of the actual mask and fabric testing. After masks have been in a humidity chamber for a day under conditions that mimic being worn and breathed through for multiple hours, Casey shoots an aerosolized salt solution through them, using a machine that quickly measures how much of the salt penetrates the material—and also how breathable it is.
Another machine shoots synthetic blood at masks, gown fabrics and face shields to test whether they could be penetrated by virus-infected blood—if a blood vessel ruptures during intubation, for example. Other equipment measures the water resistance and repellence of fabrics and the water pressure required to penetrate gowns and masks.
Now, as Bello works on improving testing techniques, two more engineering professors have joined the university’s mask design effort. Asst. Prof. Jay Hoon Park, a polymer fibers expert in plastics engineering, will work on creating better filtering materials, while Assoc. Prof. Jinxiang Xi in biomedical engineering, a specialist in respiratory fluid flow, will examine how to capture and neutralize the plume of aerosolized droplets that is created when people exhale.
Lessons Learned from the Pandemic Pivot
Even before the Mass. Emergency Manufacturing Team was up and running, Asst. Teaching Prof. of Mechanical Engineering Jonathan Perez de Alderete ’13 ’14 ’17 knew that the U.S. would experience PPE shortages.
Perez de Alderete runs Nonspec, a nonprofit that grew out of the campus DifferenceMaker program. Nonpec designs and manufacturers low-cost prosthetics, and Perez de Alderete’s suppliers in China told him they had been shut down due to COVID-19.
When the virus began to spread in the United States and a former student’s mother, a hospital nurse, called to ask if Nonspec could make PPE, Perez de Alderete thought, “We can make face shields.” Within a day, a member of his staff had designed a face shield in three parts that could be easily assembled.
“We started with face shields because it was something we could do right away. The university has the plastics and machining equipment, and my shop had the ability to design it and make a mold,” he says.
Nonspec, which is based in the university’s Innovation Hub coworking space, quickly made prototypes and tested them at the Fabric Discovery Center. Perez de Alderete asked UML’s Plastics Engineering Department for permission to use an idled lab.
Soon, Nonspec was making dozens, then hundreds of face shields and donating them to hospitals, assisted living facilities, fire departments, town election boards and the university. When Nonspec ran out of materials, Perez de Alderete reached out to Lowell Makes and MakeIt Labs in Nashua, New Hampshire, which supplied more than two tons of polyethylene film donated by Coca-Cola Co.
The nonprofit also shared its open-source design freely, consulting with multiple companies, including factories in Sri Lanka and India that are now making more than 10,000 face shields a day.
Perez de Alderete also consulted with Fraen Corp., a Reading, Massachusetts, company that adapted Nonspec’s design and commercialized it — and then donated some face shields back to the university for faculty and staff use. Now, Perez de Alderete is working on better mask designs and looking for new partners.
Chen says that is the kind of joint effort that UMass Lowell and Mass MERT want to foster.
Working with Mass MERT colleagues from MIT, Worcester Polytechnic Institute and the Mass Tech Collaborative, Chen is leading a five-year, $500,000 National Science Foundation grant to capture the lessons of Mass MERT and create a framework for strengthening the connections among all of the partners in the effort, as well as potential new partners.
The RESPOND initiative aims to build up and sustain domestic manufacturing capacity so that Massachusetts and the Northeast are not as reliant on outside sources for PPE or anything else that is needed in future emergencies.
“Recognizing that, in a crisis, there are often things that you cannot buy, we want to identify ways to connect this network of big and small manufacturers, universities, hospitals, nonprofits and government agencies more strongly — and find out where there are gaps,” Chen says.
Already, companies are reaching out to UMass Lowell with requests to collaborate on everything, from creating antiviral coatings for masks and fabrics to designing PPE that is easier to manufacture, Nagarajan says.
“We get requests every week from companies in the area,” he says.