In times of need, manufacturing is driven by a philosophy John Lennon said best, “There are no problems, only solutions.” Today, manufacturers have pivoted to produce the critical supplies and equipment necessary to battle COVID-19 at a rate never seen before. SME’s Humans of Manufacturing Heroes Edition tells the stories of the teams, companies and partnerships adapting to produce the tools needed to fight this global pandemic. Going behind the scenes to share how these once-in-a-lifetime transformations are happening and the people making it all possible.
“When the pandemic hit, we knew we had to respond,” said Robert Lattin, CTO of NurturEnergy, a St Louis-based engineering incubator incorporated in 2009. “We are not virologists, but we are engineers and we know how to make things.” NurturEnergy uses a specific innovation process, familiar in practice to many mechanical engineers, with an emphasis on speed—to design, to test and to transfer. It looks at solutions for a wide range of industries, including LED lighting, climate control, energy, and transportation. One of the company’s success stories was engineering a hybrid-electric auxiliary power unit (APU) that provides crew comfort for long-haul truckers, now produced and marketed by a spinoff company, DClimate, Inc.
However, the company’s most satisfying invention may be its UVAER device for frontline pandemic workers.
Breathing and Protection
The simple act of breathing changes during a pandemic caused by an airborne virus such as SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19. This is especially true for frontline workers. These are not just medical professionals, but include public safety workers, teachers, childcare workers, retail, service sector, and restaurant workers. Suddenly, breathing requires protection from airborne pathogens—usually masks of one sort or another, sometimes combined with face shields.
So, why try and improve these cloth masks, disposal paper masks and the so-called N95s?
“Even the N95, which is supposed to be the best disposal filter mask, fails to provide adequate protection from repeated exposure to the virus,” Lattin said. He noted that the level of protection offered by N95 masks depends on its sealing to the face. While “95” means it is supposed to be 95% effective, in actual use, mask efficiency can be as low as 50% if it’s not sealed correctly.
Other issues with a disposable mask include waste disposal. When masks filter out pathogens, the accumulated pathogens are retained on the mask and can endanger sanitation workers or others that contact it. Workers can touch the mask between client visits, endangering the wearer. “Also, masks offer no eye protection, a known pathogen entry point,” he said. “Even perfectly used N95 masks do not provide adequate protection when exposed to a low-level pathogen source for an extended period.” A light cloud of coronavirus will eventually get you. Then there are issues with breathing, comfort, and the annoyance of muffled speech.
More Than a Face Shield
Was it hubris that made a group of engineers think they could make better masks than exist already? Maybe. But not only did they have the strength of a proven engineering process, they also had access to medical talent. Lattin is married to a retired doctor and surgeon, Dr. Susan Hunt-Lattin, MD, FACS. A surgeon is an ideal surrogate user for a development effort—surgeons know what they want while spending hours in the operating room—and she helped with the chemistry as well. Hunt-Lattin’s undergraduate degree was in chemical engineering and she was a key contributor to the solution.
While their device looks like a plastic face shield, it is much more than that. Two electric powered fans push ambient air through two filters. Clean air is then directed to the user’s face by the face shield. A water reservoir maintains humidity level, not only for comfort, but also to provide additional killing power. NurturEnery’s UVAER device exploits UV light, which is known to kill the coronavirus responsible for COVID-19. The replaceable face shield improves communication, both verbal and non-verbal (think smiles and frowns and quizzical looks). Best of all, a supplementary mask is not needed, making it more comfortable.
The downside is that a battery pack is needed. That is where chemistry enters the picture. Using UV light alone could not satisfy their needs; it requires intensity and time to safely kill the coronavirus. The UVAER combines UV light with fan-driven air through Titanium Dioxide (TiO2) and carbon filters. The UV light on the TiO2 filter forms hydroxyl radicals and oxygen superoxides. These hydroxyl and superoxide molecules boost the effectiveness of the UV source, killing pathogens quickly.
“Oxidizers are a good way to break down a pathogen,” said Lattin. “The real trick is to get enough air coming into the face shield, in a limited space, quickly, and it must be highly effective. You only have one shot.”
This design, according to the company, also reduces the battery power required for the UV light required to kill pathogens. Another upside is that though it is a consumable, TiO2 is relatively inexpensive and readily available. UVAER is designed to cost in the range of a couple of hundred dollars, making it less expensive and more comfortable than other powered air-purifying systems, but more expensive than a regular face shield or N95 masks. It is aimed at workers that need to wear such protection for multiple hours at a time.
The company is making a big bet that the product will be successful by investing in production tooling early on. In this way, an accredited laboratory Intertek (ETL mark) will perform the required verification testing on an actual production model and shepherd the product through the FDA’s Emergency Use Authorization process, according to Lattin.