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Human Ecology researchers work to improve protective gear

Cornell researchers in fiber science and apparel design are putting their knowledge and energies into keeping health care personnel on the front lines of the COVID-19 pandemic from becoming patients themselves.

A team of five faculty members from the College of Human Ecology, coordinated by Juan Hinestroza, associate professor of fiber science, are improving the efficacy and efficiency of personal protective equipment (PPE).

Also on the team are Margaret Frey, the Vincent V. C. Woo Professor in Fiber Science & Apparel Design; Huiju Park, associate professor; and assistant professors Tamer Uyar and Fatma Baytar.

These researchers are merging fiber science technologies, such as nanofibers and 3D fabric structures, with apparel design technologies including 3D body scanning, thermal imaging and ergonomics. Their goal: to redesign the entire protective gear system to enhance protection, lower thermal burden and improve movement efficiency.

“These approaches can be applied to protective clothing equipment that is currently used in hospitals,” Hinestroza said. “I have experience in advanced manufacturing, and we are looking at how we can better manufacture these garments in vast numbers – tens and hundreds of thousands.”

Hinestroza is leading the fiber science side of the project. They’re developing 3D textile structures to optimize heat and humidity transfer – making the fabrics more breathable – and utilizing nanofibers and metal-organic frameworks to selectively capture and decompose chemical or biological threats. His lab has also been developing nanofiber-based filtration textiles that can decompose toxic gases, kill bacteria and deactivate some viruses.

These textiles, he said, could also be developed to alert the wearer of the presence of a toxic or contaminated environment by, for example, changing color.

Most current protective gowns are based on the material used to wrap houses to control for heat and humidity, and have not been significantly updated in decades. In the context of protective gear, Hinestroza compared it to wearing full-body plastic pajamas while trying to work.

“It is difficult to work for more than two hours wearing this kind of protective gear,” said Park, who is leading the design side of the collaboration. “The microclimate humidity reaches 100% in five minutes. The boots or protective shoes fill with sweat in 30 minutes. It’s an unbearable amount of heat inside this gear, which means they have to change every two hours.”

Not only do these conditions make it more difficult to work, as goggles fog and boots become puddles. It also makes following the hourlong process of donning and doffing the gear that much more challenging, which increases the chances of cross-contamination.

Another common failure of gear, particularly among health care providers and first responders, occurs at the interfaces between boots and pants, gloves and sleeves, and hoods and masks.

“They typically use duct tape or cover the intersection multiple times with some thick, impermeable materials that have not been successful,” Park said. “We are trying to develop a new closure system that can completely seal the interface to prevent contamination.”

In 2015, in response to the Ebola outbreak, Park designed a unique closure system that allows the garment to fall to the ground in a single piece as the user takes it off, without requiring much movement.

Other aspects of the collaboration include: designing garments that fit a wider range of body shapes and sizes; streamlining procedures for putting on and taking off the gear; improving the fit of respiratory masks; and developing new techniques for disinfecting respiratory masks using electrostatic charges, allowing health care providers to safely reuse them.

Hinestroza said the images he sees on the news remind him of the important role textiles play.

“We often see a doctor in protective gown and a patient in a bed covered with a bedsheet and connected medical equipment,” he said. “Sometimes these materials are taken for granted, but there is a lot of science behind each one of those fibers.”

E.C. Barrett is a freelance writer.

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