Mobile decontamination units could extend supply of PPE

This shipping container-turned-oven could help keep medical staff safe during the coronavirus pandemic.

Masks, lab coats, and other types of personal protective equipment (PPE) are essential to keeping medical staff infection-free as they treat coronavirus patients.

But the large number of COVID-19 cases has the supply of PPE at many hospitals running dangerously low.

This has forced healthcare workers in some places to begin reusing what should be disposable items — and now, a team from Michigan Technological University has built a device to ensure they can do so as safely as possible.

“PPE shortages are expected to last weeks to months, and we want to do something about that now,” Andrew Barnard, one of the engineers behind the device, said in a news release.

Extending the Supply of PPE

One of the most promising methods for killing the coronavirus on PPE is to heat up the equipment, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

While an oven can work for this on a small scale, MTU engineers wanted to design something that could decontaminate a lot of PPE at once.

They also wanted something that could be easily replicated wherever the supply of PPE is running low.

In 2 hours, the MTU Sanitizer can decontaminate 5,000 to 10,000 PPE units.

To that end, they designed the Mobile Thermal Utility (MTU) Sanitizer and then built a prototype of it in their campus parking lot.

The group started with a refrigerated shipping container, and then swapped out its refrigeration unit for a heating unit powered by an electric generator.

They then lined the container’s inner wall with stainless steel racks and baking trays.

To decontaminate PPE, the team just places the equipment on the trays and then heats the interior of the container to between 140 and 170 degrees Fahrenheit — the temperature recommended by the CDC.

Combating the Coronavirus

In just two hours, the MTU Sanitizer can decontaminate 5,000 to 10,000 PPE units, and it’s capable of running continuously, according to the MTU team.

They estimate that the device could decontaminate 60,000 or more masks, lab coats, and other PPE units every day, which could go a long way toward extending the supply of PPE at hospitals during the coronavirus pandemic.

The group also notes that their device’s large size could prove useful for decontaminating other equipment, too, such as hospital beds or gurneys.

The MTU engineers are now working with several local politicians to secure Emergency Use Authorization for their device and get it certified by the Food and Drug Administration.

After that, the group hopes to put the prototype MTU Sanitizer to work extending the supply of PPE at nearby hospitals. It also plans to make the design available to communities throughout the world to help them cope with their own supply shortages due to the coronavirus.

“If Houghton, Michigan, can find 25 racks, the right kind of shipping container, a heating unit, and the experts to put a prototype all together in a couple days, then this could be deployed in any city in our nation,” co-inventor Dan Barnard said.

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