COVID-19 News

ORNL industry collaboration creates 500 jobs for COVID-19 mask production

A collaboration between the Department of Energy's (DOE) Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) and a Florida-based medical device manufacturer has led to the addition of 500 jobs in the Miami area to support the mass production of N95 respirator masks.

DemeTECH, a medical device manufacturer, is the state's only National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health certified producer of the respirator masks which are needed to protect U.S. healthcare workers in the fight against COVID-19.

"We had no capability to make this material but wanted to be able to ramp up the production quickly," said Luis Arguello, Jr, vice president of DemeTECH. "Through a connection at the U.S. Department of Defense's Advanced Functional Fabrics of America, we were introduced to Oak Ridge National Laboratory and their recent success in making filter media material."

National user facility resources

Scientific research that began at the DOE's Carbon Fiber Technology Facility at ORNL provided melt blown filter material to DemeTECH so that they could develop their mask manufacturing processes. At the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic in the U.S., ORNL researchers were presented with the challenge of how to produce filtration material on existing equipment typically used to mass produce precursor material for carbon fiber production.

CFTF Director Merlin Theodore turned to the precursor line's melt blowing capability for the answer. The N95 mask is made of melt-blown polypropylene, or PP, a non-woven material that is permanently electrostatically charged with millions of microfibers layered on top of each other. The filter is capable of removing more than 95% of submicron particles found in viruses like COVID-19.

Melt blowing is the nonwoven process that makes microfibers into a fabric by scattering a polymer resin at a high air velocity. Randomly deposited fibers form a sheet of material applicable for filtration. Theodore and his team consulted with Dr. Peter Tsai, the inventor of N95 electrostatically charged filter material, to integrate the process into the melt blowing line at the CFTF.

Tsai worked with the CFTF team to develop an inline charging technology for the melt blowing line and coordinated with staff at the DOE's Manufacturing Demonstration Facility on material blending. Researchers across multiple disciplines at ORNL in materials science, characterization and systems and electrical engineering collaborated to adjust the speed and feed of the material to achieve the optimum production target.

"We've been successful in melt blowing PP continuously on the CFTF equipment," Theodore said. "We successfully produced electrostatically charged filter media that met N95 target properties within 28 days."

U.S. production

Before COVID-19, DemeTECH primarily manufactured wound closure medical devices such as surgical sutures and hernia mesh. The company began production of surgical and N95 masks in response to healthcare supply demand.

"We're glad we connected with Oak Ridge National Lab and the Carbon Fiber Technology Facility at a time when they needed to transfer their research achievements to industry because we're now able to mass produce and supply this critical material," Arguello said.

Since pivoting the company's capabilities to producing masks, DemeTECH has also opened two additional production facilities.

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