How COVID-19 is catalyzing innovation for the chemical industry

How COVID-19 is catalyzing innovation for the chemical industry

By Sriraksha Srinivasan

The COVID-19 pandemic has brought about unprecedented disruption in the functioning of several industries and widespread economic hardship for businesses and consumers alike. However, the chemical industry faces the additional hurdle of having to manufacture on site, making work from home impossible. This, combined with the global collapse of supply and operational chains, the sudden and excessive demand for products related to COVID-19 such as personal protective equipment (PPE) and disinfectants, and the inevitable need to maintain distancing and hygiene at manufacturing places, is forcing the industry to innovate and find novel solutions to these unforeseen challenges.

This article discusses the latest innovations that the chemical industry has devised to fight the pandemic along with the novel technologies that the industry can employ to continue functioning with necessary precautions.

Innovations by the chemical industry

Antimicrobial and antiviral materials

Textiles serve as one of several potential host surfaces for propagating harmful viruses and bacteria, including the current pandemic virus SARS-CoV-2. Therefore, several textile companies are attempting to develop antiviral and antimicrobial materials to meet this challenge. 

HeiQ, a Swiss textile innovation company, has launched HeiQ Viroblock NPJ03, the first antimicrobial and antiviral treatment for face masks, medical gowns, curtains, air filters, and a range of other textiles. The treatment uses a unique combination of vesicle and silver technologies to rapidly deactivate lipid-enveloped viruses, such as the coronavirus, and to inhibit the replication of both bacteria and viruses. While the treatment’s efficacy against SARS-​CoV-2 has not yet been tested, the mask has proven effective against another type of coronavirus (229E) that is very similar in structure to SARS-​CoV-2. In the in-house trials, the treated face masks were found to reduce the number of infectious 229E virus particles 10,000-​fold. 

Meanwhile SABIC, one of the world’s largest chemical manufacturers, has launched an antibacterial touchable wall-cladding solution called the LEXAN CLINIWALL AC6200. This new thermoplastic material made of polycarbonate/ABS offers a novel solution for cleaner wall claddings in hospitals, industrial settings,, and public facilities over the currently used PVC. Given its low density and stain-resistance properties, CLINIWALL provides for easier installation and maintenance.

“It is important now more than ever for public, industrial, and healthcare facilities to be equipped with products that include antibacterial properties to ensure the safety of their staff, patients, customers, and anyone who may walk through their doors” says Peter van den Bleek, product manager for SABIC.

Simplified face-shields

One of the many problems in the fight against COVID-19 is the shortage of simple face coverings. To combat this, chemical giant Dow has developed a simplified face shield design and shared it through an open-source file to accelerate additional production across the world. The key merits of this design are its flexibility, allowing the face shield to be produced from readily available polymers such as polyolefins, and its simplicity — the face shield is made of only two components, a shield and a forehead cushion — thus allowing for faster production and distribution.

Machine learning for better testing

Mexican chemical firm Orbia and the Israeli startup Nanoscent Labs, which is funded by chemical giant Sumitomo Chemical Co, have manufactured a coronavirus testing kit based on scent recognition. The test kit contains a number of parts. A disposable plastic bag is attached to an exhaling pipe that goes into the nostril. This bag is connected to what the firm calls a “nasal scent recorder,” which is a box containing a chip to “smell” the odor. The chip analyzes the breath and sends the results to the cloud, and from there to any other device. Scent samples from several coronavirus patients were used to develop an analytic model via machine learning that can accurately distinguish the sick from the healthy. Orbia’s chairperson, Juan Pablo del Valle Perochena, said that this test proved to be more efficient than the temperature detection test, and “with instant results, this is a leap forward in the maintenance of public health.”

3D printing

Mitsui Chemicals, Inc., of Tokyo, Japan, in collaboration with Nagoya University, has been producing reusable 3D printed masks that can filter out viral particles. The masks consist of a reusable body and a disposable filter. While the mask body has been produced by 3D printing, investigations are underway to see if enzyme preparations and antiviral agents can be applied to it. 

Door handles, especially in public spaces such as offices and hospitals, could serve as a hotspot for microbes and increase the risk of transmission significantly. To avoid this, the 3D printing services company Materialise has designed and shared files to 3D print a hands-free door-handle attachment that allows people to use their elbows to press the lever and open doors.

Innovations for the chemical industry

Disinfecting robots and novel hand sanitizers

Another baffling problem is the shortage of N-95 masks for healthcare workers. N-95 masks are not designed to be reusable, but hospitals worldwide are currently left with little choice. To combat this problem, Xenex Disinfection Services has developed LightStrike, a disinfection robot proven to deactivate SARS-CoV-2. The LightStrike robot uses pulsed xenon ultraviolet light to damage the DNA of bacteria and viruses and thus prevent them from spreading the infection. The results of their trials showed a 99.99% reduction in pathogen load in five minutes for N-95 masks. Hospitals have already begun using the LightStrike robot to disinfect used N-95 masks as well as patient and operating rooms. This innovation could be particularly useful in the chemical industry for disinfecting not only N-95 masks but also surfaces, textiles, and frequently handled objects.

The LightStrike robot disinfecting N-95 masks at Baptist Health in Northeast Florida
Source: NS Medical Devices

Meanwhile, SunCrafter, a Berlin-based cleantech startup, has developed a sanitizer made from end-of-life photovoltaic modules. While the modules have reached the end of their lives, they still generate enough electricity to power UVC lamps that use light to eliminate harmful pathogens. SunCrafter’s founder and chief executive Lisa Wendzich said that the company was now working with partners to identify how to manufacture significant numbers of the units in the coming months.

SunCrafter’s UVC disinfection hub powered by PV modules
Source: Suncrafter 

Proximity sensors and AI

Monitoring safe distance between co-workers is a major challenge that the industry faces. Several companies, such as Estimote and Ford, have developed wearables for proximity sensing and contact tracing at workplaces. While Ford’s wearable is a Samsung smartwatch that buzzes when the wearer is within 6 feet of another employee, Estimote’s range of wearables are based on passive GPS location tracking. When a user is suspected to have symptoms related to COVID-19, the system uses the location history data to alert team members who have previously been in proximity of the user. Along similar lines, Landing AI has developed an AI tool to help industries monitor social distancing at workplaces by analyzing real-time video streams from cameras and alerting employees when they are too close to one another.

The road ahead:

The current COVID-19 crisis is serving as a catalyst for innovation and has created an excessive demand for novel products in different avenues such as PPEs, sanitization and disinfection, ventilators and respirators, and antiviral materials, to name a few. While there are several challenges to innovating and manufacturing in the current scenario, the pandemic has also brought with it a drastic increase in opportunities and areas in which to innovate. How the chemical industry responds during this crisis could have long-term implications for companies when the economy begins to recover.  

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