The COVID-19 pandemic that has brought the world to a standstill has also caused a severe shortage of personal protective equipment (PPE). This shortage includes facemasks, respirators and isolation gowns, in addition to ventilators and eye protection. The shortages have become so critical that the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has published a set of strategies for healthcare professionals to optimize the supply of PPE.
Much of the PPE needed by healthcare professionals relies on the production of nonwoven materials for their construction. However, this material takes time and resources to produce, a significant drawback at a time when production needs to go into overdrive. It was this problem that inspired Dr. Behnam Pourdeyhimi and his team to create of a new generation of unique filter material.
Dr. Pourdeyhimi is the executive director of North Carolina State University’s Nonwovens Institute (NWI), Wilson College of Textiles associate dean for industry research and extension and William A. Klopman Distinguished Professor.
Since North Carolina has the largest number of nonwovens companies in the U.S., we wanted to find out what NWI was doing to help with the COVID-19 shortages of PPE. So, we spoke Dr. Pourdeyhimi to gain his insight and perspective into the current global situation and to find out what measures they have taken to ramp up production.
Q: Welcome Dr. Pourdeyhimi. To begin with, can you tell us a little about how medical masks are made?
A: Thank you. Classical N95 and surgical masks are made using multiple layers of nonwoven spunbond material that are combined with a layer of nonwoven meltblown material. It is the meltblown material that acts as a filter, trapping microparticles, such as bacteria and viruses, and preventing them from entering the airway. The spunbond layers are used strictly as support for the meltblown layer.
Q: Has it been a challenge to keep up with the demand for nonwovens for mask production during this time?
A: Yes, it has. But we have a large-scale facility, with two production lines, so we have significant capacity for production. We currently have our pilot facilities going full out, with people working 12-hour shifts, and we are producing roughly 3,000 meters per hour on one machine and 1,600 meters per hour on the other. This adds up to about 50,000 meters per day in one shift. The meltblown facility is now running two shifts and the spunbond facility will soon do the same.
Q: Aside from the capacity of your facility and your extended shifts, what is helping you meet the demand for nonwoven materials?
A: While we are still creating both spunbond and meltblown nonwoven material for classical N95 respirators and surgical masks on one of our production lines, it takes longer to make the meltblown material that acts as the filter in these masks.
We wanted to speed up the process so we could get protective masks produced more quickly. So, we took the spunbond technology and created a new generation of unique filters that have excellent filtering capability, without the need for a meltblown layer, and can potentially be reused after cleaning with peroxide, ozone or potentially alcohol solution.
This nonwoven filter material is being produced on our other production line, allowing us to create them in tandem with the classical masks. And because these materials are strong, unlike classical meltblown filters, they can also be cut and sewn by traditional techniques.
Q: That’s remarkable. How does this new material affect production? Can you produce more masks per day?
A: With classical masks, 1 meter will make 25 masks. This translates to more than 1,250 classical masks per minute. When it comes to the production of the new filter material, we don’t need to wait for the production of the meltblown layer. And since the spunbond material we are making consists of just the one layer, we can actually just make masks directly from that material, without having to combine it with other layers.
Q: Are the masks themselves created at your facility?
A: We are working with several partners who receive our nonwoven materials and make them into masks. However, since there is a shortage of automated capacity for making masks, the Nonwovens Institute has ordered two converting machines that will allow us to take our own spunbond material and create masks from it.
This has been made possible thanks to internal support from Office of Research and Innovation, the Office of Finance and Administration, the Office of the Provost, the Wilson College of Textiles and The Kenan Institute, in addition to external support from industry partners. The new machines will allow us to increase the number of masks that are made daily and help us get those masks out to local healthcare providers as quickly as possible.
Q: That is incredible. It sounds like there is a lot of community support within the industry.
A: There definitely is. Support from industry partners has been incredible. Exxon Mobile has provided us with significant amounts of the polymers we need to make the masks free of charge. And the chemical manufacturing company NatureWorks has done the same by offering polylactic acid (PLA) polymer to help out. I’ve never seen the community come together the way it has.
Q: That is fantastic. Thank you for all you are doing during this COVID-19 time.
A: Thank you.
For further information on how A.Celli can help increase the production of nonwoven materials for PPEs, contact us today for a free consultation.