State Grant Buys Testing Equipment for Masks and Gowns

UML engineering technician Patrick Casey tests a mask for aerosol penetration at the Fabric Discovery Center Image by K. Webster
Engineering technician Patrick Casey prepares a mask to be tested for penetration by aerosolized particles, while technical program manager Cheryl Gomes looks on.

By Katharine Webster

Amid nationwide shortages of personal protective equipment (PPE) for health care workers on the front lines of treating the novel coronavirus, the state quickly assembled a task force to help manufacturers pivot to producing masks, gowns, ventilators, swabs and testing equipment.

UMass Lowell was one of three universities selected to play a role – and the university’s Fabric Discovery Center won a $130,781 grant to buy high-level, industry-standard testing equipment for masks and gown fabrics. The grant came through the governor’s Manufacturing Emergency Response Team initiative.

Now, staff and researchers are testing PPE daily for the Massachusetts Emergency Management Agency (MEMA), hospitals, doctors, dentists and area companies.

UML Plastics Engineering Prof. Ramaswamy Nagarajan demonstrates a mask that was certified after being tested at the Fabric Discovery Center Image by K. Webster
Plastics Engineering Prof. Ramaswamy Nagarajan demonstrates one of the new disposable mask prototypes being tested at the Fabric Discovery Center.

The project is directed by Plastics Engineering Prof. Ramaswamy Nagarajan, co-principal investigator on the grant. Nagarajan 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.

“Because we’re a public university, anybody in Massachusetts can send their PPE through AFFOA, and we will test it for free,” Nagarajan says.

The team is also working with companies gearing up to make PPE to improve their materials, designs and processes before the manufacturers go through the government certification process. A mask the UML team tested early on, made by companies in the Northeast, has already been certified, Nagarajan says.

“We hope to make it possible for manufacturers in this country to produce more emergency equipment. Everybody wants to make PPE right now, and they want to know how good their prototypes are,” he says.

Dhimiter Bello, associate dean of the Zuckerberg College of Health Sciences. Image by Adrien Bisson
Prof. Dhimiter Bello, associate dean of the Zuckerberg College of Health Sciences, has expertise in aerosolized toxins and PPE testing.

In March, members of Gov. Charlie Baker’s team approached Julie Chen, vice chancellor for research and economic development and an expert on nanotechnology and materials processing, to ask what UMass Lowell could contribute to the state’s manufacturing effort.

The very next day, Chen and Nagarajan spoke with several companies to assess their needs and then assembled a team that includes Arlene Parquette, associate vice chancellor for industry partnerships and economic development; Claire Lepont, senior technical program director at the Fabric Discovery Center; and Dhimiter Bello, associate dean of the Zuckerberg College of Health Sciences and principal investigator on the grant.

Bello, a professor of biomedical and nutritional sciences, is an expert on worker health and toxicology. He studies respiratory health in relation to aerosolized toxins and has extensive expertise in aerosols, evaluation of PPE efficiency under field conditions, and human biomonitoring.

“We have several active research projects looking at how well PPE (such as respirators, gloves and coveralls) protects workers against engineered nanoparticles and other highly toxic chemicals, including nanoaerosols,” Bello says. “Transmission of viruses through airborne aerosols is an important pathway (for infection), and even though we don’t work with viruses per se, the technology and science behind aerosolized viruses and nanoparticles is similar.”

UML Honors College student Madison Reed conducts a pour test on PPE fabric Image by Courtesy
Plastics engineering major Madison Reed tests hospital gown fabric for water resistance.

Patrick Casey, an engineering technician who normally works in the Core Research Facilities on campus, is doing the actual testing.

After masks have been in a humidity chamber for nearly a day under conditions that mimic being worn and breathed through for multiple hours, Casey shoots an aerosolized solution with charged salt particles through them, using a machine that quickly measures how much of the salt penetrates the material – and also how breathable the material is. Casey has designed custom holders to fit all of the different mask sizes and shapes.

Other machines shoot synthetic blood at masks and gown fabrics to evaluate whether they would stop virus-infected blood from getting through – for example, if a blood vessel ruptures during intubation; measure the water resistance and repellence of fabrics; and measure how much water pressure it takes to penetrate materials for gowns and masks.

Madison Reed, an honors plastics engineering major and rising senior who is a member of Nagarajan’s research team, was barred from entering the Fabric Discovery Center until very recently, like all students and post-doctoral fellows. But Nagarajan enlisted her to keep track of all the testing data so that it can be reported out to the companies, MEMA and health care providers.

She says it’s been a great learning experience, and it’s satisfying to contribute to the fight against COVID-19.

A mask prototype after a synthetic blood test at UML's Fabric Discovery Center Image by K. Webster
A mask shows partial penetration by a spray of artificial blood.

“It’s really interesting to be the data analyzer and to gain experience more on the management side of science and engineering. This is the kind of work that the post-doctoral fellow would do on most projects,” she says. “And it’s really rewarding to know that we’re helping health care professionals stay safe and helping hospitals and other care facilities provide proper protection for their workers.”

Chen says the next steps are building up and sustaining domestic manufacturing capacity so that Massachusetts and the region aren’t as reliant on outside sources for PPE.

More faculty are already being brought on board for pilot projects and grant proposals to look at new designs and materials, as well as to figure out testing methods that better mimic field conditions.

New designs are especially important for masks, Chen says: Even the best disposable, respirator-quality masks only work if they’re fitted properly, and the standard size doesn’t work for all faces.

“Mask design hasn’t changed a lot in decades, and we all know that they’re 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.”