Nearly three weeks ago, the University of Maryland’s chemical and biomolecular engineering department got a call from Children’s National Hospital in Washington, D.C. Anthony Sandler, the hospital’s chief surgeon, made a request to department chair Peter Kofinas.
He needed more surgical masks to protect his colleagues from the coronavirus. Supplies were running low.
Before the pandemic hit, Kofinas and Sandler had been collaborating on a research project to create a plastic-like substance that — when sprayed through an airbrush — produces a mat of fibers that could be used to cover wounds. The two reasoned they could adapt that technology and use it to create much-needed surgical masks for the hospital.
So, within a week, Kofinas’ team hunkered down at his lab and got to work developing prototypes.
Armed with a new sense of urgency, Kofinas spread word about the project to other professors in his department. Now, he and his team are well on their way to producing the masks, and another team of researchers has mobilized to churn out hand sanitizer.
As the virus chokes supply lines across the U.S. and hospitals struggle to protect their staff, the faculty and students behind Kofinas’ project represent just a handful of the hundreds of academics who have jumped into action. The engineers at this university say they’re happy to do what they can for their communities.
“These are really not difficult things to do,” Kofinas said. “If someone has the basic knowledge and has a laboratory that specializes in these kinds of materials, it’s easy to adapt your lab to make these things.”
Dongxia Liu, a professor in Kofinas’ department, had been worrying about the spread of COVID-19 for months. Her relatives in China had been dealing with it since January.
As Kofinas’ lab began work on face masks, Liu and Chen Zhang, another professor, began collecting materials to produce hand sanitizer aided by a donation from Northrop Grumman.
“We are just trying to do what we can to help,” Zhang said.
Liu, Zhang and two graduate students produced 100 bottles of “Terpsanitizer” in a matter of days. Soon, they’d be on their way to a fire station in Montgomery County.
Oscar Montalvo, a firefighter and EMT for Montgomery County Fire & Rescue Service, had met Kofinas at a jiu jitsu center in Laurel two years ago. The 2010 graduate of this university learned about the hand sanitizer project on social media.
Montalvo reached out to Kofinas, asking if the professor could bring hand sanitizer to Gaithersburg-Washington Grove Volunteer Fire Department, where he works.
As a first responder, Montalvo comes into contact with patients who might have the coronavirus or who have been exposed, he said. His department has amped up its use of personal protective equipment in recent weeks, wearing surgical masks and gloves on every call.
Kofinas quickly responded to Montalvo’s message, and delivered the first batch of hand sanitizers to the fire station on March 25.
“In hard times, you gotta rely on other people for help, like friends, group, community,” Montalvo said. “I’m just lucky that I know someone as smart as him.”
Although Liu and Zhang hope to have produced about 1,000 bottles of hand sanitizer by next week, manufacturing face masks at such a rate requires much more time and research, said Omar Ayyub, an assistant research faculty in the chemical and biomolecular engineering department.
After a few days of trial and error, Ayyub, Kofinas and doctoral student Metecan Erdi developed prototypes for the masks. Ayyub expects them to be ready for production in a month or two.
The team has also been in contact with groups at other universities, collaborating on the development of 3D-printed face shields with researchers at the Global Center for Medical Innovation, a nonprofit affiliated with the Georgia Institute of Technology, Ayyub said.
“Everyone has different pieces of the puzzle in terms of knowledge or tools that are on hand,” Ayyub said. “Everyone needs to kind of pull together to get to where we need to be.”
Despite their progress, though, ever-changing work restrictions from government officials have brought challenges to the department.
The university has allowed research labs focusing on fighting the pandemic to remain open even as the rest of campus life grinds to a halt, but social distancing measures limit the number of people who can be in a lab at once. And getting the materials necessary to produce hand sanitizer and face masks has also been a challenge, members of both teams said.
Zhang expects delays in the shipment of bottles used to package the hand sanitizer. Ayyub and Kofinas have taken to scouring other labs for bulk supplies of polymers, Erdi said.
After Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan issued a stay-at-home order for the state earlier this week, Liu and Zhang have been unable to return to their labs. Liu has submitted the names of people on her team for clearance, and expects to return to her lab soon.
There will be plenty of work waiting for them when they get back.
Since word got out about the department’s work last week, Kofinas estimates he’s received requests for masks and sanitizer from about 20 different groups. They’ve poured in from many affected by the crisis — Prince George’s County police, hospital workers, first responders, and essential staff who remain on this university’s campus.
“We’re all making large batches, and we’ll distribute until we run out,” Kofinas said. “And then we’ll make some more again.
This story has been updated.