A mechanical engineering student has developed a prototype of a personal protective equipment (PPE) testing facility for locally made surgical masks.
Nathan Hollett, who is in the third year of his program at Memorial, says that when he realized others were helping with the COVID-19 pandemic response by leveraging engineering technologies he is familiar with, he could, too.
“It just seemed the obvious thing to do, if I could be of service,” he said.
Mr. Hollett says he initially reached out via social media and LinkedIn to see how he could contribute.
A medical doctor from Newfoundland and Labrdor currently working in Ontario responded almost immediately; the two started working together.
The doctor informed Mr. Hollett of a group forming in the province to assist with COVID-19 efforts. The group, which became known as Task Force NL, has volunteer business and community leaders helping to provide PPE for frontline health-care workers during the pandemic.
“We saw how quickly this group of individuals from similar backgrounds came together and with me and a few of my peers, we knew we could help since we had access to 3D printers and Computer Numerical Control technology,” he said.
The team presented some ideas to Eastern Health and were asked to fabricate surgical masks to match certain criteria. This included health testing standards that typically would be tested in a limited number of laboratories in North America or elsewhere.
Mr. Hollett says that’s when he reached out to the dean of the Faculty of Engineering and Applied Science, Dr. Greg Naterer, for support, guidance and critical access to engineering laboratories.
“Dr. Naterer became very involved. He oversaw what we were doing. I needed to get into labs despite the restricted access to buildings on campus. I needed a lot of special permissions, which he helped me with.”
With access to the equipment, laboratories and a testing standard provided to him by Eastern Health, Mr. Hollett began developing his prototype.
“My goal was to provide the very best mask we could.”
He says one of the biggest issues was an ethical one – he didn’t want to provide surgical masks that were not up to the required standard.
“My goal was to provide the very best mask we could, but also provide them with the best knowledge of what they were getting. If it didn’t exactly conform to the required safety standards, I needed to be able to tell them where it fell short.”
Mr. Hollett studied the testing standard provided by Eastern Health. When he understood and prepared the necessary computer assisted drawing files as well as a testing and calibration procedure, he contacted Rick Meaney, director of Memorial’s Technical Services, to get the parts 3D-printed and laser cut.
The testing prototype
Once he had the required parts in hand, Mr. Hollett assembled them in the faculty’s Fluids and Hydraulics Laboratory.
“This allowed things to happen more quickly by leveraging 3D-printing technology and the available lab equipment, so that testing could happen almost immediately,” said Mr. Hollett. “A pressure reservoir was used to accurately control the pressure of synthetic blood, which is dispersed onto the mask in discrete amounts over a fixed amount of time through a cannula, mimicking a failed blood artery, in order to simulate worst-case use scenarios.”
The surgical mask was then inspected for a permeation, or penetration, of the blood to the inside of the mask, which resulted in either a pass or fail for each specimen.
“Blood is used instead of mucous because testing standards call for blood, which is the worst-case scenario in terms of permeation,” he said. “Mucous and other bodily fluids should not penetrate the mask as long as it passes the blood test. This is not, however, a direct test of the mask’s filtering capabilities.”
Dr. Naterer says he was happy to help Mr. Hollett on the project and is proud of the work done to help local health care professionals in the fight against the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Nathan’s apparatus was well-designed to match all key dimensions and specifications for testing standard F1862,” said Dr. Naterer. “He also made creative modifications to ensure it can be used for large quantities, quickly and affordably.”
As a result of the testing prototype, locally made surgical and DIY masks have been tested, with some now under review with the hopes of meeting specifications by Eastern Health when combined with other testing and qualifications.
Those masks are now being tested in other labs to ensure they meet other national standards. While they aren’t in use yet, Mr. Hollett says the goal is to have masks ready if, and when, they are needed. He points out that it is important to have a locally produced option so that Newfoundland and Labrador can become self-sufficient.
“It’s also been great to see our community come together to do some amazing things. These masks may never be needed, and hopefully they won’t be needed, but it’s been great to see our local community coming together to do what needed to be done.”