Necessity’s inventions: design challenge takes aim at Ebola

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INSPIRED INNOVATIONS: Engineering students William Smith, Joshua Bazile, and Michael Maloney display a hazmat suit they created.

“It’s an extremely simple invention that we’ve tested and demonstrated is safe,” he says. “It’s a no-brainer that people in the field will want to use it.”

At least three more inventions from the Columbia Design Challenge appear to have a good chance of being widely deployed. One is the blue bleach spray. The New York City Fire Department recently purchased two hundred units of it from Jin, Kang, and Tyan.

The chief medical officer of the department, David Prezant ’77CC, contacted the students after reading a New Yorker article that described their project. The FDNY performed its own tests using their mixture of additives in December and subsequently decided that its hazardous-materials emergency teams could use it in responding to any of a variety of viral or bacterial outbreaks.

“Disinfecting hazmat suits has always been a challenge for us. The solution that these kids came up with is phenomenal.” 
FDNY chief medical officer David Prezant '77CC

“Disinfecting hazmat suits has always been a challenge for us,” said Prezant. “Imagine it’s a windy night in New York and you’re working in the dark. In conditions like that, it’s especially tough to know if you’ve sprayed the suit well. The solution that these kids came up with is phenomenal.”

Also likely to make a real-world impact, Lipkin says, are the foam bleach spray created by Somasundaran and an ingenious hazmat suit with internal cooling pouches and a camel-style hydration pack for sipping water through a straw — the work of engineering undergraduates Ritish Patnaik, William Smith, Joshua Bazile, and Sidney James Perkins. Both of these inventions were finalists in a national design contest organized by the US Agency for International Development this winter. While neither Columbia team won that competition, the resulting media exposure piqued the interest of potential collaborators. DuPont, one of the world’s largest manufacturers of hazmat suits, for instance, recently contacted Patnaik and his classmates about incorporating some of their innovations into the company’s products.

INSPIRED INNOVATIONS: Fellow engineering students Jun Guo and Kay Igwe demonstrate a fumigation chamber they built for disinfecting electronics.

“We think our suit could be worn comfortably for up to three hours,” says Patnaik, who is studying to be a biomedical engineer. “And in the hands of the right manufacturer, each could be produced for a few dollars.”

As far as dean Mary Boyce is concerned, the success of these projects demonstrates not only the social consciousness of Columbia students and faculty, but also their entrepreneurial and collaborative spirit.

“From the beginning, I looked at this primarily as an educational project, one in which young engineers would learn how to work with public-health experts and others to deliver real-world tools in a rapid-fire atmosphere,” says Boyce. “We hoped that some of their designs would be useful in the field. But I don’t think any of us could have predicted the level of success that we’ve actually seen.”

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