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UMaine, statewide partners producing hand sanitizer, exploring PPE innovations for Maine hospitals

The University of Maine has formed an innovation team to help evaluate and develop solutions to the shortages of supplies and challenges faced by Maine’s health care centers since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. The group includes UMaine faculty, staff and students, representatives from the Maine Department of Economic and Community Development, the Maine Manufacturing Extension Partnership (Maine MEP), MaineHealth, St. Joseph Hospital and Northern Light Health. Other collaborating partners include the Manufacturers Association of Maine and Maine Procurement Technical Assistance Center.

The team based at the state’s public research university is operating as part of a March 22 umbrella agreement with the Maine Emergency Management Agency (MEMA) allowing the University of Maine System to provide goods and services to Maine health care facilities and agencies as coordinated by MEMA.

The first UMaine-led initiative to help meet the shortage of personal protective equipment (PPE) for health care workers focuses on production of hospital-grade hand sanitizer. Other initiatives include research on protocols for N95 masks, and development of devices supporting intubation and ventilation. All supplies are coordinated by the University of Maine System via the MEMA WebEOC.

With hospital-grade hand sanitizer in very short supply, a team led by UMaine’s Process Development Center (PDC) and faculty in chemical and biomedical engineering has established limited production of hospital-grade alcohol-based sanitizer in accordance with FDA Temporary Guidance.

Beginning March 23, the university’s existing supplies were used to pilot the production of FDA- compliant 80% ethanol hand sanitizer, which has been distributed to Central Maine Medical Center and Northern Light. This week, the team began more robust production and distribution, including supplies to Covenant Health, MaineHealth, Cary Medical Center, Houlton Regional Hospital, Down East Community Hospital, Maliseet Health and Wellness Center and Dorothea Dix Psychiatric Hospital. Hospitals have been notified and are able to place their requests online.

The Process Development Center is working with Maine Distillers Guild’s Ned Wight, who is coordinating the ethanol supply from area distillers. They include New England Distilling, Hardshore Distilling, Stroudwater Distillery, Sebago Lake Distillery, Split Rock Distilling, Blue Barren Distillery, Mossy Ledge Spirits, Chadwick’s Craft Spirits, Wiggly Bridge Distillery, Round Turn Distilling and Three of Strong Spirits. Local brewers provide the feedstock for the distilleries. These include: Allagash, Maine Beer, Rising Tide, Foundation, Oxbow, Shipyard, Baxter, Threshers and Tumbledown.

UMaine’s production has focused on larger volume 55-gallon and 5-gallon containers for use by hospitals. To meet evolving and expanding demand, they are now increasing coordination with other distillers who may remain focused on smaller package production. These include Maine Craft Distillers in Portland and Boston Brands in Lewiston.

After April 6, continuous PDC production is expected to be at 400 gallons a day, given the available supply of components. PDC is able to produce a single 55-gallon batch in 30 minutes.

The hospital-grade hand sanitizer is intended for immediate use and only for hospitals. As production increases, the hope is to supply other health-related facilities and first responders to meet demand.

Nestlé is donating 0.5-liter bottles to help distribute the hand sanitizer in smaller portions.

The hand sanitizer is being produced in a 500-square-foot wet lab space in the Process Development Center in Jenness Hall on campus. A three-person production team (two to produce and bottle, and one to move materials and supplies) is required, enabling staff to observe social distancing requirements while at work. Support and management staff coordinate from remote locations.

PDC is UMaine’s commercial-scale pilot plant, established four decades ago to primarily support the pulp, paper and bioproducts sector with research, development, demonstration and commercialization services. The capacity for commercial-scale products and chemical engineering processes made it possible to adapt to the hand sanitizer production in a safe and efficient way.

Maine, like all states and countries worldwide, is experiencing critical shortages of PPE and sanitation materials throughout hospitals and health care centers. The scarcity of these traditional supplies has led many to consider alternative materials and devices, and protocols for using alternatives and reusing limited supplies.

The UMaine team, along with the Maine MEP, representatives from Maine’s medical centers and the Maine Department of Economic and Community Development, have been cataloging needs from area hospitals and medical centers, and collecting information worldwide to vet innovations that have been tried and used. An important factor is that alternative materials, technologies and techniques have to be evaluated and approved to be used in the hospital setting to be safe and effective. The team has the ability to review approaches with doctors, clinicians, infection control and pharmacists as well as the Maine CDC, to gain confidence that alternative materials and techniques will work and can be used.

The N95 mask is another PPE component in severely short supply. The masks, used by frontline medical personnel in direct contact with patients, are meant to protect the wearer from the highly contagious COVID-19. Typically a single-use mask, hospitals are now evaluating protocols to sterilize and reuse N95s. Researchers in UMaine’s Chemical and Biomedical Engineering Department have evaluated known sterilization technologies and techniques. They have conducted scientific literature searches on the performance and effectiveness of techniques, and documented protocols of other hospitals and medical users to better inform Maine hospitals. Equipment often differs from one hospital to another. The compiled information allows health care providers to develop a protocol specific to their institution and guidance on equipment to acquire. They are consulting directly with Maine hospitals as protocols are being evaluated.

In addition, the UMaine Advanced Manufacturing Center (AMC) is testing N95 masks before and after sterilization treatments to ensure the filtering performance has not been degraded. AMC is UMaine’s manufacturing business and engineering support and service center, and is dedicated to promoting economic and workforce development in the state. The center in UMaine’s College of Engineering was established to provide a high-level technical resource that would be readily accessible to businesses, entrepreneurs, students and researchers throughout Maine.

The UMaine innovation team also is working closely with Maine hospitals and manufacturers to evaluate alternative materials and designs for masks that can be locally manufactured in the quantities needed. With the volume in the hundreds of thousands, this is not a trivial problem. AMC and Maine MEP, led by Larry Robinson, have been vetting designs and testing materials with hospitals. As national demand increases, base material supplies are tightening and alternative materials become more critical.

Given the N95 shortage, hospitals also are relying on other known PPE devices, such as the clear plastic face shield and N80 surgical masks. Existing supplies of medical face shields are drying up. UMaine, Maine MEP and hospitals have evaluated prototype designs that can be manufactured in Maine in the huge quantities needed, and in materials that are acceptable for medical use. Protocols are being evaluated for face shield reuse based on materials properties and sterilization techniques. Several Maine manufacturers have shifted production to face shields and are filling orders from hospitals. Those manufacturers include Plas-Tech, Thermoformed Plastics of New England, Flowfold and Maine Source Machining.

Newer innovations include a clear plastic “aerosol box,” a three-sided shield with handholes that covers the patient’s head and shoulders, and allows medical personnel to intubate safely to contain aerosol spray. AMC worked with Maine MEP to design a prototype that has been evaluated by area hospitals and manufacturing is beginning at Maine companies.

In addition, 3D printing is being evaluated as a tool to help with the production and prototyping of PPE and other devices, such as ventilator components. UMaine, the University of Southern Maine, Maine community colleges and a variety of companies in the state are evaluating this potential. While an exciting technology, not all 3D printing materials are suitable for medical use or will hold up to sterilization.

While formed directly to work with Maine hospitals and Maine manufacturers, the UMaine innovation team welcomes ideas from others. The group is making new connections daily and hopes others will coordinate through the Maine Department of Economic and Community Development, the Maine Center for Disease Control and Prevention and MEMA. Questions and can be sent to umaine.innovation@maine.edu.
Contact: Margaret Nagle, 207.581.3745

About University of Main Process Development Center: 

The UMaine Process Development Center (PDC) is pleased to offer our facility, equipment, and expertise for cooperative research and development projects. For over thirty years, the PDC has set the industry standard for collaborative pulp and paper research and in recent years has expanded into other technology areas, such as nanomaterials and nano-composites.

We have a long track record of collaborating with partners to support traditional manufacturing as well as to create entirely new products from forest and agriculturally derived raw materials. Over the years, the PDC has served a unique role in supporting public-private partnerships, particularly within the forest products industry.

Advancing a product from concept to commercial success can sometimes seem a daunting prospect. This is especially true for start-up companies which may not have the facilities or the staff to bring an idea to market. The knowledgable staff and faculty of the Process Development Center offer you open access to our facility and resources. We will support you throughout the entire process – from concept development, validation, pilot demonstration, and through to successful commercialization. Whether you’re a well-established industry leader or a fledgling tech start-up, as our client you can expect world-class technical expertise and access to cutting-edge technology and equipment.

Learn more: https://umaine.edu/pdc/