MORGANTOWN, W. Va. - As healthcare facilities grapple with personal protective equipment shortages, West Virginia University researchers are going against the grain to help with an earthy, unorthodox resource: wood.
At the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, Gloria Oporto, associate professor of wood science and technology, had researched woody biomass for food packaging and pharmacy novel applications. Woody biomass are timber-derived products that can be converted to energy through combustion or gasification.
Oporto would grow increasingly concerned about reports of the lack of PPE for medical professionals, sparking the question, "Why can't we use renewable materials, such as wood derivatives to supplement the PPE?" She then reached out to Rakesh Gupta, chemical engineering professor.
With the aid of a National Science Foundation RAPID award for nearly $200,000, Oporto, Gupta and their team will develop and test antimicrobial, renewable mask biofilters constructed of composite biomaterials.
The goal is to produce a prototype - a reusable, environmentally-friendly biofilter to serve as a filtering, facepiece respirator - that enhances the safety of masks currently used in the medical setting.
RAPID grants are awarded to researchers tackling quick-response projects supporting severe or urgent situations. RAPID awards have been granted to other University researchers already confronting the COVID-19 crisis.
According to Oporto, the three key components of the mask filters are: polylactic acid, a biodegradable plastic derived from agricultural and renewable resources; nanocellulose, a nontoxic, lightweight substance produced from wood pulp; and nano copper, which contains antimicrobial properties.
"We have the materials and we are ready to prepare," Oporto said. "It will be biodegradable and reusable, and we'll be working heavily with mechanical engineering to produce these with 3D printers. It's not just dreaming of producing something. This is real."
By incorporating small-sized antimicrobial/antiviral nano copper particles, the filters will likely prevent not only COVID-19, but other viruses and microorganisms, from penetrating a mask.
Because the project is funded by RAPID award, the team is aiming to develop and optimize the fabrication of these filters by the end of the year.
Developed filters will be tested to demonstrate that they have all the properties required for masks to be worn by medical personnel. If the research is successful, it will result in the development of a reusable medical mask that is superior than the single-use mask that is currently in use.
"Our project is intended to help healthcare professionals, but developing these for the general public would be a logical next step," Oporto said. "If we can develop this now, certainly, we can have something that would be useful for the larger population."
The filters will undergo heat tests and researchers will examine most effective ways to clean and reuse them.
The project could even lead to innovations around the development of surfaces and other antimicrobial products resistant to the novel coronavirus, Oporto said.
"These materials are going to be antimicrobial/antiviral, so there's that level of protection where, ideally, you may not need to clean or use chemicals on surfaces," she said. "That's one possibility that may come out of this."
Another objective to the project is to promote collaborations across different fields such as wood science, health science, engineering, chemistry and biology which, in turn, will support training and education of students in these fields.
Members of the team include Jonathan Boyd, orthopaedics; Sushant Agarwal, chemical engineering; Rosaysela Santos, pathology, anatomy and laboratory medicine; and Edward Sabolsky, mechanical and aerospace engineering.
"For me, working with something I love, like wood, and having an incredible team with different skills and talents," Oporto said, "there's an extra level of happiness that we can develop something that can help to so many people."
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