Battelle Pioneers Technology To Clean And Reuse PPE

Several large metal shipping containers are lined up in a warehouse on Columbus’ West Side under a large American Flag. Their doors are ajar, and workers stream in and out, power tools buzzing.

These are no ordinary shipping containers: They represent a huge scientific breakthrough in the fight against COVID-19.

“We’re looking at the Battelle Critical Care Decontamination System that we’ve developed to be able to decontaminate PPE for health care workers on the frontline,” says Battelle researcher Will Richter.

The Critical Care Decontamination System is the first of its kind, capable of cleaning up to 80,000 pieces of PPE (personal protective equipment) at a time. Battelle's system was designed to be modular so it can be easily shipped, and scaled up – the more units in one area, the more rapidly they will be able to clean mass amounts of PPE and return them to the hospitals. 

Hospitals around the country are starting to run low on personal protective equipment like masks, gloves and goggles. The looming shortage puts health care workers in danger as they treat the influx of coronavirus patients.

Battelle had planned to send units to New York City, Stony Brook, the state of Washington and Washington, D.C. for use by local hospitals. Up to 20 more units were planned to be shipped elsewhere around the country.

Gov. Mike DeWine personally appealed to the Food and Drug Adminstration to speed up the approval process. However, their decision didn't work out as he hoped.

In a statement Sunday, DeWine said the FDA authorized Battelle's machines to sterilize just 10,000 surgical masks per day—far short of their capacity—and only at their Columbus headquarters.

"The FDA's decision to severely limit the use of this life-saving technology is nothing short of reckless," DeWine wrote. "I am not only disappointed by this development, but I'm also stunned that the FDA would decline to do all it can to protect this country's frontline workers in this serious time of need."

A statement from the FDA was not immediately available.

Inside Battelle

On Saturday morning, before the FDA announcement came down, a team of four Battelle scientists put on protective gear and step inside the containers.

The first chamber is an air lock, and the inner chamber sucks contaminated air from the chamber, through multiple HEPA filters, and then out through a vent in the back of the container.

Used N95 masks will be laid out on metal racks lining the walls. Other forms of PPE, like goggles, can be hung off of metal rods. Once the unit is full, the scientists will exit the main chamber into the airlock.

They will then spray themselves with ethanol to ensure they aren’t contaminated themselves, before exiting the entire container and sealing it tightly.

Researcher Will Richter stands inside the decontamination chamber. [Paige Pfleger / WOSU]

Scientists then begin the decontamination process, which uses vapor phase hydrogen peroxide.

“We inject the vapor at the rear of the chamber, and then the fans ensure homogenous distribution,” Richter says, pointing at fans mounted in the upper corner of the unit. “We then have plumbing running to the front, so it has to travel through the entire length of the chamber before it returns and recycles back to the generator.”

Loading the unit, running the decontamination process, letting it aerate, then reloading the cleaned PPE into boxes to be sent back to the hospitals they came from, takes about 12 hours.

This decontamination unit is bound for New York.  [Paige Pfleger / WOSU]

A forklift drives into the warehouse, lifts the shipping container and loads it onto a truck bed, destined for New York City.

Richter watches on as his scientific accomplishment is prepped for deployment. 

"It's been a crazy two weeks, we've been working around the clock," he says. "We just want the health care workers to have what they need. I don't want to have any health care worker without PPE, facing that choice, having to go into that room. So yeah, it feels good." 

Copyright 2020 WOSU 89.7 NPR News. To see more, visit WOSU 89.7 NPR News.

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