Necessity’s inventions: design challenge takes aim at Ebola

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Members of the New York City Fire Department test a blue-colored bleach spray that Columbia engineering students created to help emergency workers cleanse hazmat suits of infectious agents. / Courtesy of FDNY

Quick thinking

At 1 p.m. the next day, eighteen teams showed up with ideas. One group of undergraduates, led by engineering junior Jason Kang and College juniors Katherine Jin and Kevin Tyan, said they had come up with a better way to decontaminate hazmat suits. They proposed adding a blue dye to the bleach that field workers were using. Spraying a garment would temporarily turn it blue, thus helping workers determine when every square inch of a suit had been cleaned.

“The trick will be figuring out the right combination of chemicals so that the pigment isn’t broken down by the bleach right away,” said Kang, who is studying to be a biomedical engineer.

Ponisseril Somasundaran, a professor of mineral engineering, came with a different way to decontaminate hazmat suits: he suggested that a sprayable bleach foam would work better than a liquid spray, since it would more effectively cling to the suits’ waterproof surface. The foam, he said, would also be ideal for decontaminating entire hospital rooms, ambulances, and airplanes, because less bleach would be required in relation to the liquid spray to do the same job.

“The bleach runoff from a liquid spray is not an insignificant environmental issue,” Lipkin said later. “This makes good sense.”

Seven more teams, most of them led by students, received the panel’s support, along with preliminary grants of $150 each to begin working on prototypes. Among their ideas was to create an “inverse” personal-protection suit that Ebola patients would wear while being transported and which would comfortably contain and absorb their bodily fluids so as not to infect others; a folding wooden cot with a plastic underbelly to catch bodily fluids during sickness; a cooling vest that health-care workers could wear beneath a hazmat suit; and a text message-based communication system that would alert health-care workers to the latest outbreaks.

Some teams hewed closely to the suggestions Lipkin had made the previous day. A group led by Jun Guo and Kay Igwe, both engineering students, took up the challenge of creating a fumigation chamber for electronics devices. They proposed building an eighteen-inch acrylic cube with a drawer for putting in chemical powders and a valve for adding water; objects as large as desktop computers could be placed inside. Its walls would be translucent so that sunlight would break down the resulting chlorine gas, thus allowing the chamber to be opened safely within minutes.

“It looks like a good preliminary design — just make sure the resulting gas pressure doesn’t cause the chamber to explode,” said Jeffrey Kysar, the chair of Columbia’s mechanical engineering department, who, along with Lipkin, Boyce, biomedical engineering professor Aaron Kyle, and several other faculty and staff members, sat on the review panel.

Other teams went in unexpected directions. One group proposed making aprons with West African-inspired prints that could go over hazmat suits to make health-care workers look less intimidating. The project was inspired by media reports about some West Africans being reluctant to visit treatment centers in part because their staffers looked so frightening. “This is an anthropological approach to the issue,” said Daniel Taeyoung ’09CC, ’13GSAPP an adjunct assistant professor at the School of Architecture, Preservation, and Planning. “We want to help alleviate the reticence or hostility that some people might feel when encountering the workers.”

Christopher Aston, the University’s senior biological safety officer, and W. Ian Lipkin, the John Snow Professor of Epidemiology, listen to design proposals on October 15. / Photos by Tim Lee / Columbia Engineering

In a "maker space"

Over the next few weeks, the sixty or so design-challenge participants worked long hours, somehow balancing their jobs and class schedules with the drive to create new sprays, foams, suits, apps, and cots. Much of the work was done at the engineering school’s “maker space,” a facility that combines elements of the machine shop, wood shop, and design studio.

The team led by Guo and Igwe used the maker space to build their fumigation chamber — first designing it with AutoCAD software and then manufacturing a prototype with a laser cutter. “We solicited help from lots of friends in working out the design,” says Eric Tong, a key member of their team. “A classmate who is studying materials engineering was instrumental.”

Jin, Kang, and Tyan, in order to make their colorful bleach-spray additive, spent many late nights teaching themselves about chemical dyes and disinfectants. They soon decided that adding a surfactant, which is a chemical that helps liquid adhere to surfaces, would make a bleach spray even more effective on waterproof hazmat suits. The team spent $650 on various dyes, surfactants, and other additives in search of the right combination.

Along the way, the judges offered guidance. They reminded the students to consider how the West African heat would affect chemical reactions, for instance.

By early November, the new concoction was ready for testing. In a preliminary trial conducted in a biosafety level 3 laboratory at Columbia University Medical Center, a team of professional hazardous-material experts sprayed it on garments covered in West Nile and influenza viruses.

“The beautiful thing about bleach is that it kills all viruses and bacteria,” says Lipkin. “So as long as the bleach could still be sprayed with these new additives in it, it would kill Ebola — or anything else. And it worked fine.”


New tools for emergency workers

The first invention likely to be deployed in West Africa is the fumigation chamber. In December, its creators received $2,000 from the engineering and public-health schools to produce five units. The team, which has grown to include engineering undergraduates Jumari Robinson and Ajit Singh, is now working to finish the chambers; Lipkin plans to send them to colleagues at the National Institutes of Health and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention who are overseeing Ebola-response efforts in both West Africa and the United States.

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