Imagine what it was it like being a health care worker or lab employee near the start of the COVID-19 pandemic and not having enough personal protective equipment (PPE). This forced many to come up with creative solutions to stay safe. PPE is now part of everyday life, but problems such as ill-fitting face masks and gowns for health care workers as well as some being forced to reuse disposable PPE due to supply and logistics chain challenges are still plaguing us.
This need to innovate PPE led many researchers and companies to create new products and recraft existing ones, making them more effective and sustainable.
The research roundup highlighted here can’t be exhaustive. The few examples of innovations below demonstrate how PPE is advancing and evolving. Note: Face coverings were mostly omitted as they’re not technically PPE, though they were used by some for their protection.
Access to enough PPE was a major issue over the last couple years, with hospitals and clinical labs running out due to demand outrunning supplies. Many decided to solve this using DIY solutions. Some companies and universities teamed up with partners to create new PPE designs and 3D-printed face shields and respirator masks. Hospitals innovated too—in one example, a Toronto doctor modified plastic bags to protect health care workers who remove ventilator tubes from patients’ throats.
Innovations often stem from great needs while we're under tight constraints...
Non-PPE companies opted into PPE innovating. Undergarment manufacturer Hanesbrands and other clothiers produced three-ply cotton masks approved by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) as a substitute for N95 masks in critical needs areas only.
Many followed suit. Spirits producers including Bacardi Corporation, Pernod Ricard SA, Anheuser-Busch InBev NV, and BrewDog pivoted from potable alcohol to manufacturing hand sanitizer, with many partners helping ensure its safety.
Building better PPE
Along with inspiring PPE innovations, the pandemic fostered research to improve PPE effectiveness and materials. An example involves creating a special fabric using metal-organic frameworks that can deactivate both chemical and biological threats, including the SARS-CoV-2 virus. The material, developed by researchers at Northwestern University, is reusable, requiring a quick bleach treatment after being exposed to various hazards, thus being more sustainable.1
Research to develop new filters could lead to respirator improvements. Recently, University of California, Riverside researchers and George Washington University colleagues captured 99.9 percent of coronavirus aerosols using nanofibers. The filter is produced via low-cost electrospinning, potentially enabling it to be mass-produced, according to a May 2021 press release.2 A year earlier, research in ACS Nano from King Abdullah University of Science and Technology showcased improved, replaceable filters for N95 masks. The filter has a self-cleaning, hydrophobic membrane, according to a press release.3
Alternatives to N95 masks have also been a key focus area, with one option developed by Brigham and Women's Hospital and Massachusetts Institute of Technology researchers. Their transparent, elastomeric, adaptable, long-lasting respirator uses sensors to ensure a proper fit and let wearers know when filters are saturated. In a small study with 40 participants, the respirator achieved excellent filter exchange, breathability, and fit, and 100 percent fit-testing success. The respirator is greener than current N95s as it can be sterilized multiple times.
Since the pandemic’s beginnings, many researchers innovated to solve PPE problems. These solutions include extenders to make surgical masks more comfortable, materials that deactivate the virus, and coatings applied to N95s making them easier to decontaminate and thus antiviral.4
Researchers’ work aimed to make PPE easier to decontaminate and developed new devices and methods for PPE decontamination. University of California, Los Angeles researchers and colleagues showed that N95 masks could be safely decontaminated and reused through various methods, including vaporized hydrogen peroxide (VHP). Other research showed similar results, and VHP is now often used for decontaminating PPE.
Subsequent research confirmed the effectiveness of other decontamination methods. Research from a University of Southampton team published in AIP Advances in October 2021 developed a method using low-temperature plasma technology to remove 99.99 percent of coronavirus from face mask respirators while still allowing the masks to be safely reused, cutting costs and reducing waste.
Other work involved developing new devices to decontaminate PPE, such as a compact “portable rack hanging device” created at Florida Atlantic University in November 2020 that uses ultraviolet-C light to sterilize up to six masks at once. The device can decontaminate N95 respirators and cloth masks worn by the general public.
If you were wondering how such decontamination methods change N95 masks, so did researchers. Two national research facilities at the University of Saskatchewan—the Canadian Light Source and the Vaccine and Infectious Disease Organization-International Vaccine Centre—teamed up to use advanced X-ray techniques to explore how different decontamination methods affected mask materials microscopically and what causes the fibers to degrade. The work will help manufacturers improve their products so they can be safely decontaminated by as many methods as possible, and last longer.
Innovations that may lead to improvements
The pandemic also led to research that brought us more insight into how factors such as fit affect how well PPE works and may lead to further innovations. A team at the University of California, Davis found that, despite leakage around the edges, surgical masks still effectively reduced the amount of aerosols produced from coughing or talking. Mask leakage is a significant concern among industrial hygienists. Though the study was small, involving just 12 volunteers, it helped confirm wearing a mask is important, even if you’re not wearing it perfectly.
The effects of face shape on PPE performance and improvements have also been a major focus. A team at Florida State University received an $800,000 grant from the National Science Foundation to better understand the mechanics and flow physics of face masks, how they fit various users, and how protection can be improved. This should lead to better options for all face types.
Developing better PPE materials could also help make masks and other products more effective at protecting people from viruses such as SARS-CoV-2. During the pandemic, hundreds of research projects developed new materials to improve PPE or lead to creating new products. Work from the École polytechnique fédérale de Lausanne involved creating new filter material from titanium oxide nanowires that can trap and kill pathogens. The material could help improve masks worn by the general public. Another filter material developed by Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology researchers could also improve face masks, making them reusable while still maintaining effectiveness. In March 2020, the team was awaiting approval in Korea to sell the product, but it’s unclear if it’s currently being used. Much research has also been done on the effectiveness of current materials used in both cloth masks and N95s, which should lead to improvements.
Tackling the PPE waste problem
The increased PPE use was effective at protecting lab workers and others, but it increased PPE waste and pollution. Besides reusable PPE, this led researchers to innovate improved waste management.
A team of researchers from University of York, University of the Sunshine Coast, and the University of Tasmania looked to the past to solve this. They examined it through an archaeological lens to understand cultures by their waste materials. John Schofield of University of York's Department of Archaeology said taking this approach “provides a distinct and helpful perspective on the problem of environmental pollution.5”
Research also focused on improving PPE recycling or reformulating it entirely. Research in the journal Biofuels shows how PPE could be turned into biofuels using pyrolysis, while similar work from Cornell University scientists in Renewable and Sustainable Energy Reviews proposed reverting PPE to its original forms and into fuels.6,7
The future of PPE
Innovations often stem from great needs while we’re under tight constraints, as demonstrated above. PPE improvements are likely to continue now that we’ve seen what we can do. The continued impact of COVID-19 and other challenging risks will create opportunities for more innovation. The need to reuse or conserve PPE will inspire other green, sustainable approaches. It’s only a matter of time until the next need for PPE innovations occurs.