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UNM Engineering faculty, students helping COVID-19 efforts with respirator mask and sanitizer production

April 10, 2020 - by Kim Delker

photo of Christina Salas and two other team members

It didn’t take long after news of the global pandemic of the coronavirus hit for members of The University of New Mexico’s School of Engineering to begin using their ingenuity, looking for ways to help.

In particular, news that those on the front lines — medical professionals and emergency workers — lacked basic personal protective equipment (PPE) like masks as well as hand sanitizer were concerning, yet, being engineers, they immediately saw solutions.

Although the UNM campus has been largely physically empty the last few weeks due to the university’s period of limited operations — with students banned from campus, and faculty and staff working mostly remotely — there were very busy efforts under way to get designs and a production process going quickly to help those in need.

Christina Salas, an assistant professor of the Department of Orthopaedics & Rehabilitation at UNM and special assistant to the dean of the School of Engineering for Health Sciences Center relations, was appointed to coordinate and lead the School’s varied efforts.

Salas has a unique qualification, being familiar with both the medical side, working frequently with hospitals and physicians on biomedical devices, as well as the engineering side of designing, building and producing equipment used by medical professionals.

“We saw a great need in the community, and with both a top engineering school and a top medical school at UNM, these forces quickly became aligned and organized behind this effort,” Salas said. “Our hope is to use UNM’s resources of expertise, equipment and creativity to really make a difference to those in the trenches working with patients.”

Over the past couple of weeks, engineering faculty have been focused on producing face masks for medical workers. Although that in itself is a fairly simple job for an engineer, using 3D printers and materials on hand, a lot of work behind the scenes has taken place to make sure the masks can be used by those in the field, according to current safety regulations. Salas was tasked with coordinating the needs of UNM Hospital physicians and working with the engineers to make sure the masks meet the correct specifications.

Salas has worked closely with Dr. Justin Baca, Dr. Jonathan Marinaro (director of the UNM Center for Surgical Critical Care), both from UNM Emergency Medicine, and Dr. Benoit Blondeau, acute care and trauma surgeon from UNM’s General Surgery, on the 3D printing efforts.

photo of the mask making setup

This week, engineers at COSMIAC, an aerospace-related School of Engineering research center located in a facility near the Sunport, were granted a special exception from UNM Provost James Paul Holloway to use their laboratory facilities during the period of limited operations and have students participate in the production. The 6,000-square-foot high-bay manufacturing space in back of COSMIAC, known as “the Launchpad,” is the center of operations for mask production.

Following strict guidelines that include social distancing (no more than six persons at the facility at a time), frequent hand-washing and sanitizing, temperature-taking, and wearing of gloves and facial protection, the facility was given permission to set up a 24/7 production capability that will include three shifts, using students and faculty. Production began April 10, with the goal being to produce 500 masks a week, Salas said.

Thanks to a grant led by Craig Kief, director of COSMIAC, the group has been able to acquire a dozen 3D printers, HEPA filter material that has a similar filtering capability as N95 masks, and other needed supplies. The production has been fast-tracked in order to meet the growing need as the pandemic peaks.

Salas said that the masks produced will be able to be used by both hospital workers at UNM as well as other medical providers across the state.

Peter Vorobieff, a professor of mechanical engineering, is also leading an effort to produce face masks. He is studying the physics of face masks, collaborating with biologists and mathematicians to determine the effectiveness of masks against virus particles and the best ways of disinfecting masks for reuse. These masks will be manufactured with the collaboration of the New Collar Network, which includes 3D print shops in New Mexico and several other states, and the international Fab Lab Network connected to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, which includes more than 1,000 fab labs worldwide.

Another effort is under way to make hand sanitizer, which has become difficult to acquire during the pandemic.

Heather Canavan, a professor in the Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering, is taking the University’s “distance learning” model in a literal direction. When UNM announced that it would go on extended break, and then change its instructional model to a remote one, Canavan moved her lab operations to her garage. From her home office, Canavan and her team can view the face shields and masks for healthcare workers being printed in her garage to minimize the number of people in the same area. She’s also distributed the materials and equipment needed to sew fabric masks for non-healthcare workers in our community.

Canavan has partnered with a local brewery, Broken Trail Brewery & Distillery, which has been shut down since the governor’s “stay at home orders” were put into place last month, to produce and distribute hand sanitizer. Distilleries such as Broken Trail are capable of making large batches of sanitizer, which they can also test for purity. All of these efforts are organized under what Canavan is referring to as “ScrubHub ABQ.”

“Right now, we’re seeing so many people who want to contribute, they want to help, they want to show support for our essential workers,” she said. “They are learning how to sew, how to make hand sanitizer, and how to make personal protective equipment. But we need to make sure that they’re able to comply with the ‘stay at home’ order and continue social distancing.”

ScrubHub will provide stipends for volunteers who operate the printers, courier the materials necessary to make PPE, and distribute the PPE to those who need it, just like delivery companies such as Grub Hub and Uber Eats.

“This is possibly the most important aspect of ScrubHub. So many people in our community have been laid off from their jobs as waitresses, bartenders, and other jobs, and they are worried about how they will feed themselves and their families. By providing these volunteers with money, we’ll be able to help them find some financial stability as everyone waits to receive their unemployment checks or start a new career,” she said.

Canavan has donated equipment from her own laboratory and has created a Go Fund Me account to pay the volunteers. ScrubHub ABQ was recently awarded $7,500 from the 2020 Pitch In Social Enterprise Challenge.

“Everything that is donated will go directly to supporting our community—we’re not going to take a dime. I know it’s a terrible business model, but it’s what we need to do,” she said.

Other engineering faculty, including Sakineh Chabi, an assistant professor of mechanical engineering, and Shuya Wei, an assistant professor of chemical and biological engineering, are also in the process of helping out with sanitizer production through their respective research laboratories. Fernando Moreu, an assistant professor in the Department of Civil, Construction and Environmental Engineering, 3D printed a prototype in the Center of Advanced Research and Computing before UNM’s period of limited operations and donated 30 safety masks and sterilized printing material to Dr. Baca. Student Marlan Ball, who works with Moreu on cybersecurity projects, worked on the 3D printing. And Tito Busani, an assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering, made his lab with a 3D printer available for hospital staff and postdoctoral researchers that need to work during this time.

In the coming weeks, other projects will also be under way for this effort, Salas said.