Sustainable wood derived PPE to protect against COVID-19

West Virginia University researchers have received $200,000 to develop wood derived PPE to protect against COVID-19.

The environmental impact of COVID-19 is still largely unknown. While there have been reports of reduced air pollution, there has also been a surge in plastic waste due to increased use of personal protective equipment (PPE) such as masks and gloves. Surgical masks are currently manufactured using plastics like polypropylene, polystyrene, polycarbonate, polyethylene, or polyester.

In addition to traditional PPE having a negative impact on the environment, there are also issues with the global supply chain of this life saving equipment. According to a new paper published in The New England Journal of Medicine, there is a critical supply shortage in the US for PPE. The paper states: ‘the shortages have led to pleas from individual US health care providers trying to secure adequate supplies of PPE. The situation has become so dire that some providers are using social media (with tags like #GetMePPE) and have even set up websites to obtain PPE directly.’

Why develop wood derived PPE?

Shortages of PPE and environmental sustainability are the key drivers of a recent study by West Virginia University (WVU). Prior to the pandemic, Gloria Oporto, associate professor of wood science and technology, studied woody biomass for food packaging and pharmacy novel applications. In collaboration with Rakesh Gupta, a chemical engineering professor at WVU, Oporto aims to produce PPE using renewable materials, such as wood derivatives.

Oporto and Gupta have received a $200,000 RAPID award from National Science Foundation to produce and test new reusable, environmentally-friendly biofilter to serve as a filtering, facepiece respirator.

“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,” said Oporto.

How sustainable are biofilters?

These biofilters will be made from composite biomaterials, with three key components: 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. 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,” Oporto said.

Once the WVU team has successfully developed their filters, researchers will conduct rigorous testing to ensure the safety of the PPE. The team will examine the safest and most efficient way of cleaning the device.

Supporting interdisciplinary collaboration

Oporto and Gupta have expressed interest in promoting the collaboration of scientists from a number from fields such as wood science, health science, engineering, chemistry, and biology which will support training and education of students in these fields.

“For me, working with something I love, like wood, and having an incredible team with different skills and talents, there’s an extra level of happiness that we can develop something that can help to so many people,” said Oporto.

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).

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