Engineering Safer Personal Protective Equipment

More than one year ago, Alberta recorded its first presumptive case of COVID-19.

Almost immediately, the province reacted. Families stocked up on groceries and settled in for self-imposed house arrest. Individuals isolated themselves from their social circles. Employees started working from home.

But those precautions weren’t options for front-line health-care workers, who started—or, in many cases, continued—working around the clock to provide urgent medical assistance. Unable to keep a safe physical distance from their patients, they relied on personal protective equipment (PPE) to decrease their risk of contracting COVID-19.

Unfortunately, PPE can also act as a vector for the highly infectious virus to spread to patients, personnel, and others.

Science to the rescue 

“I wanted to do something to help with the situation,” says textile scientist and professional engineer Dr. Patricia Dolez, an APEGA member and assistant professor in the Faculty of Agricultural, Life, and Environmental Science at the University of Alberta. Specializing in protective clothing—including fire-protective fabrics for firefighters—Dr. Dolez is using her expertise to improve the PPE used by health-care workers.

With support from a $50,000 Alliance COVID-19 grant from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada, Dr. Dolez is leading research to develop a textile treatment that will enable the surfaces of masks, gowns, and other fabric-based PPE to kill COVID-19 on contact. In essence, the treatment will make the PPE self-decontaminating.

The project is a collaboration with fellow professional engineer and APEGA member Dr. Cagri Ayranci, an associate professor in the U of A’s Faculty of Engineering, and Dr. Mark McDermott, an associate professor in the U of A’s Department of Chemistry.

If the project proves successful, industry partner Logistik Unicorp, a Quebec-based managed clothing solutions provider, will step in to bring the product to the manufacturing and commercialization stage. “By working with them, we can make sure that what we come up with will be possible to produce,” says Dr. Dolez.

Don't forget the sunscreen

The treatment being developed contains the polymer N-Halamine, which has the ability to create nitrogen-chlorine bonds. Treated textiles can be immersed in a liquid containing chlorine—like bleach—and the polymers in the treatment will bond with the chlorine molecules. Because chlorine is an effective killer of viruses and bacteria, the surface of a textile becomes an inhospitable place for COVID-19. “We’re activating the fabric with chlorine,” explains Dr. Dolez.

Over time, the bonds will fade and the fabric can be “recharged” with the same method.

The technology isn’t new—it’s used to disinfect swimming pools, for instance—but is being used in a new way. “The only problem is that it’s sensitive to light,” says Dr. Dolez. To remedy this, the treatment must contain something that will absorb light, instead of the polymer. The team is hopeful that nanoparticles of titanium dioxide—a component of many sunscreens—will do the trick.

Forging ahead

With the COVID-19 pandemic still in full force, Dr. Dolez and her team are doing everything they can to get their textile treatment into the world quickly. This includes using known solutions like N-Halamine, which have been shown to work and be safe for humans.

She is eager to see the treatment curb the spread of COVID-19, but says its applications are broader than upgrading PPE during the pandemic. Across the country, hospital-acquired infections are a growing risk to patients. “Eight-thousand Canadians die every year because of this,” she says. “Many [deaths] can be prevented just by having fabrics like this.”

Stay current on Alberta's public health measures

Visit the Government of Alberta's COVID-19 page for the latest information on mandatory restrictions in the province.

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Dr. Patricia Dolez, P.Eng.

Dr. Patricia Dolez, P.Eng.