Rapid Response

A venerable Ohio nonprofit quickly patched the mask shortage for major hospitals

Across the nation, shortages of personal protective equipment have been a serious constraint on health-care workers during the early days of the coronavirus emergency. There aren’t enough N95 masks for nurses and doctors to discard them after every use, as they were designed. Yet reusing the same mask over a period of days risks transferring the virus to your hands or face. 

That’s why the Battelle Memorial Institute—a nonprofit created a century ago to develop new technologies useful to mankind—recently completed a crash program for disinfecting masks intended for a single use. Battelle scientists created a machine that uses concentrated hydrogen peroxide vapor to quickly and safely decontaminate large batches of masks. 

“We did a study five years ago” (during a 2016 airborne contagion) “and proved the science worked,” explains Katy Delaney, director of media relations at Battelle. When the mask shortage erupted this year, the organization quickly put their idea into production. Battelle then set up mass-decontamination machines in Ohio, Brooklyn, Long Island, Boston, Chicago, and Washington state. Each system can decontaminate 80,000 masks per day. Battelle is building a total of 60 units under a $415 million contract with the Pentagon. 

The new decontaminators can be used by hospitals and other health-care providers at no charge. In response, medical workers quickly reorganized their procedures to save masks they had previously tossed out. Battelle says a typical mask should be reusable about 20 times, at which point its elastic band will have degraded. The institute is now completing tests to confirm its technology can also be used to decontaminate ventilator components and surgical gear.

“We’re a nonprofit charitable trust,” notes Delaney. That allows the Columbus, Ohio, organization to move quickly. “We tackle the tough problems” without having to deal with public bureaucracy, or profitability concerns. 

The Battelle Memorial Institute was endowed by the 1923 will of steel industrialist Gordon Battelle, who built much of his commercial career on the idea that scientific research can solve serious problems for business and society. In the years since, his charity has churned out hundreds of useful products. Many of them—like a machine for sterilizing paper products that were supposed to be disposable!—wouldn’t have made much sense at a government or corporate lab. Yet they turned out to be quite valuable to fellow Americans.

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