LAWRENCE — The University of Kansas campus may be largely shut down, but faculty, staff and graduate students at the School of Engineering are contributing to the fight against the coronavirus pandemic, using their skills and resources to produce personal protective equipment (PPE) for medical professionals. KU Engineering is innovating to design alternative equipment based on the need and the constraints — such as raw materials — to make them more comfortable and easier to use for longer durations.
“The School of Engineering continues the challenging work of adapting to circumstances and serving our community,” said Candan Tamerler, associate dean for research at the School of Engineering. “I am proud of our resilience, resourcefulness and generosity. It’s a powerful reminder of who we are.”
There are multiple teams examining different needs on PPE items. One of the key resources for KU’s engineers: The school’s collection of 3D printers, which are being used to manufacture personal protective equipment to be used by health care workers in The University of Kansas Health System.
“We felt if we can help other people, we can do the job very quickly,” said Mei He, assistant professor of chemical & petroleum engineering with a dual appointment as assistant professor in the Department of Chemistry.
He has supervised graduate students Bryce Stottlemire and Raj Bose as they use the printers to produce face shields and the headbands that hold them in place. They printed 100 sets of the devices — using open-source plans available online — and plan to deliver them to health care workers and use them on KU’s campus.
“This is the reason I’m a bioengineer – to serve people the best I can through devices and potential therapies,” said Stottlemire, who is pursuing a doctorate in bioengineering. “I’ve been looking for a way to give back to the front-line health care workers.”
“If they fall sick, they are the most essential workers in society right now,” Bose, a bioengineering master’s student, said of medical workers. “If there’s any way I can help generate PPE, that would be a really good service to those heroes on the front line.”
Tom DeAgostino, associate professor of the practice in mechanical engineering, and Al Syvongsay, laboratory technician, are using his department’s “maker space” to produce 10 sets of face shields per week using a high-end 3D printer that requires more time for production. Ramping up the project involved more than finding plans and starting to print, he said. Factors such as sterility, sturdiness and transport packaging also had to be considered.
“All of this stuff is out there on the internet. There’s not been much vetting of what’s good and not so good,” DeAgostino said. “We did a search of the most viable things that could be made, then did test printing to see what was good and what can be made better.”
In more normal times, DeAgostino oversees a School of Engineering program that designs and produces devices to assist people with disabilities. He sees the work of fighting the pandemic as being in the same vein of that project.
“We help one at a time, or as many as we can, but it’s important,” he said.
For Ron Barrett-Gonzalez, professor of aerospace engineering, the pandemic is personal: His youngest daughter is a radiation technologist at a Kansas City hospital that is short of personal protective equipment — and what is available to the doctors and nurses there, she told him, is often uncomfortable.
So Barrett-Gonzalez designed a new, lightweight polycarbonate shield — based on a similar device used mostly by loggers — that is more comfortable and easier to clean. He also designed a device to make regular face masks more comfortable, an adjustable loop that fits around the back of the head instead of the common one-size-fits-all mask that loops around the user's ears.
Barrett-Gonzalez said he expects to make the plans available online.
“We think we can add value, both to the primary caregivers in hospitals, but also for regular people,” he said. “If you have to wear this type of mask for three hours while you’re out shopping, it can be uncomfortable. People will wear their masks more if they’re not in physical pain.”
KU engineers stand ready to help in other ways, as well. Paulette Spencer, director of KU’s Institute for Bioengineering Research and Distinguished Professor of Mechanical Engineering, said the school has the resources and knowledge to begin producing medical-grade hand sanitizer, if needed.
“I think we’re like all the rest of the community — what can we do to help?” she said. “We’re geared up to do it. We have the supplies and prototypes in place.”
And Stottlemire is ready to pivot to producing the specialized N95 masks with replaceable air filters.
“It’s a matter of using what we have and helping others,” he said.
Tamerler, who is coordinating the KU Engineering response, said the school has been in contact with the KU health system throughout the process.
“We have been frequently communicating with them with respect to what they need, what supplies are available and what they think they’ll need in coming weeks so that we can think ahead of time on designs,” she said.
Tamerler said she was proud of the school’s contributions to the fight against the coronavirus.
“Within a very short time, our faculty has done extraordinary work,” she said. “I’m so proud to serve the School of Engineering.”
Tamerler also said several other faculty in the School of Engineering and the KU Medical Center played a key role in contributing to these efforts. They include Juan Bravo Suárez, associate professor of chemical and petroleum engineering; Rick Hale, professor of aerospace engineering; Mark Shiflett, Foundation Distinguished Professor of Chemical and Petroleum Engineering; Steve Soper, Foundation Distinguished Professor of Chemistry, Mechanical Engineering and Biomedical Engineering; Dr. Jay Nachtigal, associate professor of anesthesiology; and Dr. Stephen Waller, associate professor of infectious diseases.
Photo: Bryce Stottlemire, a doctoral student in bioengineering, displays one of the face shields designed and fabricated in the labs of Mei He, assistant professor of chemical & petroleum engineering, and Cory Berkland, Solon E. Summerfield Distinguished Professor of Pharmaceutical Chemistry.