Welsh Government have announced funding for the Energy Safety Research Institute (ESRI) at Swansea University to develop a unique approach to next generation Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) in the fight against viruses.
The new equipment is designed to achieve protection from viruses such as SARS-CoV-2, which is predominantly transmitted via inhalable respiratory droplets. The project involves an approach previously undertaken for the US Navy by ESRI’s director, Professor Andrew Barron.
“We had demonstrated that superhydrophilic materials can collapse aerosol droplets onto fabric,” he said. A superhydrophilic material is one that is highly attracted to water such as the contact angle of a droplet of water on the surface is equal to zero degrees. Professor Barron’s research group combined these components into a single treatment on fabrics that successfully trapped high levels of aspirated viruses.
The project is being funded by Welsh Government through the Sêr Cymru (Welsh Star) Tackling COVID-19 programme. The aim is to adapt the “collapse and trap” approach to low cost non-woven fabrics to obviate the need for the use of expensive and hard to source melt blown filter that is currently used in FFP3 masks.
Although mask wearing has been proposed as a key behavioural component of tackling the COVID-19 pandemic, even the highest-level masks are not designed to stop the transport of sub-micron sized viruses.
The ability to trap viruses in a fabric designed for breathing is difficult because the filter must allow air transmission. However, trapping of a virus is difficult due to its dispersion in micron size water droplets (aerosols), which can pass through a fabric and into the respiratory system.
According to ESRI, two things must be achieved: first, collapsing of the water droplet onto a fabric or filter surface of a breathable porosity, and secondly, subsequent immobilization of the active virus particle.
The design and materials manufacturing of the project will be conducted at ESRI in partnership with Dr Shirin Alexander, while viral testing is being performed in partnership with Dr Paola Salvatore and Dr Stefano Guido at the CEINGE-Biotecnologie Avanzate research institute in Naples. In addition, Andrew Turner at Madano Ltd will be involved in understanding the impact and how success is measured.
Professor Peter Halligan, Chief Scientific Adviser for Wales and head of the Sêr Cymru programme added: “While we are all experiencing such difficult times, it is heartening to see the positive reaction by our Welsh universities in response to the Sêr Cymru research call and the continued effort to maintain high standards of research excellence which becomes even more critical in the efforts to combat COVID-19 and all its associated implications.”
Andrew Turner, Senior Account Director at Madano added: “As we come to terms with the pandemic, it is vitally important that communities in Wales and the wider United Kingdom become more aware of how differing materials used can alter transmission rates of the virus.”
The project is being conducted in partnership and with the support of SALTS Healthcare and their technology partners at MiDAS Green Innovations Ltd.
“Professor Andrew Barron and the team at ESRI are world-class innovators in the field of materials science and we are extremely proud of our relationship with the group,” said Iain Powner, Strategic Head – Technical at SALTS Healthcare.