A collaboration among Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL), two industry partners and a renowned scientist-inventor helped fill an urgent national need for N95 respirator masks during the COVID-19 pandemic.
As the virus spread rapidly in the early months of 2020, health care workers began to fall short on personal protective equipment (PPE) to protect themselves from the virus and minimize its spread. One crucial piece of PPE is the N95 respirator mask, which filters out 95% of airborne particles. This sets it apart from many other masks and face shields that simply provide a barrier against droplet transmission.
The N95 respirator mask features interwoven microfibers of a thermoplastic polymer called polypropylene. That material is then passed through an electrostatic charging device — invented in 1992 by Dr. Peter Tsai, then a University of Tennessee researcher — that gives it a permanent charge, making it 10 times more effective for filtering without affecting air flow.
With advice from Tsai, who came out of retirement to help with the pandemic response effort, the Carbon Fiber Technology Facility (CFTF) at ORNL adapted its capabilities in less than five weeks to produce the material for N95 masks, which it supplies to several other national labs for COVID-19 research and development.
To help scale up domestic production of N95 masks, ORNL sought to transfer its methodology to a commercial manufacturer. With Tsai’s help, ORNL worked with Tennessee-based Cummins Filtration to adapt the company’s facilities, create the material, install electrostatic charging devices and test their production. Cummins now produces enough filter material for more than 1 million N95 masks per day.
One crucial piece of PPE is the N95 respirator mask, which filters out 95% of airborne particles. This sets it apart from many other masks and face shields that simply provide a barrier against droplet transmission.
ORNL later connected with DemeTECH, a medical supply company in Florida looking to expand its product line to include face masks. ORNL, Cummins and DemeTECH adapted ORNL’s filter material for DemeTECH’s face mask production process. DemeTECH’s supply chain is 100% American, and production takes place entirely in Florida.
With 15 production lines, DemeTECH is now producing 3 million surgical masks and a half-million N95 masks per day. The company has also hired 500 new employees and expects to bring on 600 more.
Several unique and creative technology transfer mechanisms facilitated the urgency of ORNL’s response, notably the employment of a user agreement with both Cummins and DemeTECH. User agreements were a quicker pathway to commercializing ORNL’s technology than a Cooperative Research and Development Agreement (CRADA). Seven user agreements are in place with other industry partners seeking to make filter material or face masks.
ORNL also executed 11 Material Transfer Agreements to universities, industry partners and other national laboratories in less than two weeks, several in less than 24 hours. Getting these agreements in place allowed for rapid testing and evaluation of ORNL’s innovative material.
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