UW’s chemical engineers tackle COVID-19

Tuesday, July 14, 2020

During World War II, when countless wounded soldiers required a scarce and expensive medicine, chemical engineers helped solve the problem that had limited its availability. In a triumph of chemical engineering, John McKeen used deep-tank fermentation to scale up production of penicillin, the first modern antibiotic. Margaret Hutchinson Rousseau, another talented chemical engineer, designed the first commercial-scale penicillin plant. 

With their contributions to penicillin’s breakthrough, McKeen and Hutchinson Rousseau helped reduce the cost per dose, save thousands of lives and set the course for the industrial-scale production of other lifesaving drugs. As today’s chemical engineers address the many threats associated with COVID-19, will we see chemical engineering triumph again?

Let’s look at the exciting COVID-19-related developments taking place in the University of Waterloo’s Department of Chemical Engineering for a glimpse into the work chemical engineers do and, perhaps, a preview of chemical engineering’s next big achievement.

High-impact research

Our faculty and the post-doctoral fellows and graduate students they supervise use their expertise in nanotechnology, surface science, polymers, materials engineering, environmental processes, biological engineering, biomedical engineering and more to solve some of the many problems the pandemic introduced to our world.

Imagine door handles that kill coronavirus. Healthcare workers confidently and safely re-using personal protective equipment. Facemasks that keep us safe without adding to landfills. A COVID-19 vaccine that gives us back the lifestyles we once enjoyed.

University of Waterloo’s chemical engineers are working on all that, and more.

COVID-19-resistant surfaces

We can acquire coronavirus, among other infections, from a surface that has the virus on it. What if, instead, those surfaces could help us eradicate COVID-19?

Professor Boxin Zhao and the researchers in his Surface Science and Bio-nanomaterials Laboratory create self-cleaning surfaces from advanced polymer coatings and composites. They make antimicrobial coatings that can kill bacteria, fungi and viruses, and superhydrophobic self-cleaning surfaces that can repel liquid droplets – even those troublesome ones that become airborne when someone sneezes.

Professor Zhao is now collaborating with colleagues and industrial partners to develop an innovative, cost-effective coating technology that would be used to mass produce COVID-19-resistant antimicrobial plastic products.

PPE decontamination

To protect themselves from airborne COVID-19 particles and aerosols, healthcare workers depend on layers of personal protective equipment (PPE), including N95 facemasks and gowns. Supply shortages force some healthcare workers to re-use their contaminated single-use equipment, at significant risk to their health.

Early in the pandemic, Professor Bill Anderson applied his expertise with photochemical processes to determine how frontline workers could safely reuse crucial protective equipment. He and his fellow researchers conducted a rapid review of existing research on how long the virus that causes COVID-19 survives on the materials used in PPE and specified affordable and fast disinfection protocols.

Professor Anderson is now collaborating on a $1-million study to determine if the proposed protocols can be safely used on the front lines of the pandemic.

Sustainable, effective face masks

The N95 and other single-use surgical masks that are healthcare workers’ first line of defense against COVID-19 contain synthetic fibers, such as polypropylene, that take decades to biodegrade.

Professor Michael Tam is using his expertise in sustainable nanomaterials and polymers to create effective and sustainable alternatives to disposable masks.

He and his team in the Laboratory for Functional Colloids and Sustainable Nanomaterials are developing an anti-microbial, nanocellulose-containing protective spray formulation that repels droplets and also binds and decontaminates virus particles. With the quick-drying spray, fabric masks will perform at a level comparable to that of surgical or N95 masks.

They are also engineering forest and agriculture biomass to produce protective face masks that are water repellant, antimicrobial and able to capture virus particles. The paper-based formula and mask production process can be scaled up to produce large volumes of the mask for distribution to hospitals, schools, etc.

Professors Tam and Kevin Musselman from the Department of Mechanical and Mechatronics Engineering have recently submitted a CFI grant proposal to establish research infrastructure to support the testing and production of filtration media and coating systems.

Immune response and vaccine development

While the highly contagious novel coronavirus is seemingly benign for many, it causes significant harm to others. What’s worse, people without symptoms can unknowingly spread the virus to other people who may then become deathly ill. Because it is so difficult to control through common measures, like staying home when we are sick, a vaccination may be the best defense against it.

Professor Marc Aucoin, whose research group studies complex biologics, including proteins, antibodies, viruses and virus-like particles, is working together with the Department of Biology’s Brian Dixon and St. Mary’s General Hospital in Kitchener, Ontario, to generate SARS-CoV-2 proteins for serological assays to investigate human antibody response – the basis for many vaccination strategies.

Furthermore, in collaboration with UWaterloo’s School of Pharmacy, Professor Aucoin is developing a dual-modality DNA-based COVID-19 vaccine that can be delivered through a nasal spray.

Vaccine production

Once a vaccine is found, millions of doses will be required to vaccinate the population.

Chemical Engineering professors Perry Chou and Murray Moo Young are members of a research team that is developing a process for the production of a COVID-19 vaccine. Funded by a research grant, they are using biochemical engineering principles to develop biotechnology innovations for designing and scaling up the production process.

Unlimited potential

Once our researchers’ work is complete and their innovations are ready for mass production and/or implementation, other chemical engineers – many of them University of Waterloo graduates – will take the lead to ensure that these technologies, products and processes are put to good use in the world.

No matter what innovations help us conquer COVID-19, chemical engineers will play a part. Chemical engineering has unlimited potential to make positive change, as do those who learn to apply its principles. Chemical engineering will triumph again.

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