Engineering Students Slow Ebola


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A microscopic view of the Ebola virus. Image: Wikimedia Commons

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Never could Jun Guo have imagined when she came to the U.S. from her home in southern China to study liberal arts that four years later, she would be helping stop the spread of the worst outbreak of Ebola in global history.

Today a junior studying mechanical engineering at Columbia University, she is one of several dozen engineering, public health, and other STEM students participating in a design challenge to come up with low-cost, technology-driven solutions that can be quickly funded and developed to have immediate impact in West Africa.

The program sprang up essentially overnight out of a conversation between the deans of public health and engineering, Dr. Linda Fried and Dr. Mary C. Boyce, respectively. Within days, an email went to students in early October inviting them to a discussion forum on challenges that low-cost technology solutions for controlling Ebola could address, such as decontamination, communications, transportation, and logistics. The goal is to produce realistic design concepts and rough prototypes within one or two months that can be rapidly developed and sent to West Africa.

After a two-hour presentation, interested students formed 18 teams and began discussing design concepts. Those were refined the following morning and presented to a panel of Columbia and external experts that very afternoon. Within a week, the teams, now narrowed to 11, began purchasing materials, refining designs, and preparing for a longer presentation to the experts some 10 days later.

“I feel like I worked five or more hours each day for a week before our presentation,” Guo said, all at the same time as midterms.

Her team of eight is working on a portable chlorine dioxide gas decontamination chamber for electronic devices, such as medical equipment, keyboards, and phones. These cannot be decontaminated with liquid bleach solutions typically used for non-electronics.

Jun Guo presenting the portable chlorine-dioxide decontamination chamber. Image: Timothy Lee Photographers/Columbia Engineering

“We know that people have been using chlorine dioxide gas but in a sealed plastic bag, which is not reliable and is a one-time solution because they then throw away the bag,” Guo said. The chamber is also safer since chlorine dioxide can be harmful to humans if not handled properly, she said.

Currently, the prototype is a half-meter acrylic cube, with one side a hinged door to allow for the equipment to be placed inside. The devices sit on a grate-like platform placed over a plate holding an antimicrobial powder that releases chlorine dioxide as a gas when coming into contact with water. A squeeze bottle on the outside of the chamber holds water dispensed to the powder in a tube going through the side of the chamber. That starts the chemical reaction, creating the gas, which eventually fills the entire chamber. 

The team’s ultimate goal is to create a chamber that is a one-meter fiberglass cube because it would be cheaper, lighter, and last longer. However, the university does not have the equipment to work with fiberglass, which is difficult to cut and requires special facilities and equipment to protect users from irritation to the eyes, skin, and respiratory tract.

Next steps for the team include testing the box for durability, establishing a protocol for how much powder and water are needed, establishing a protocol for how long devices must stay in the box, and writing an instruction manual. “We are also trying to simplify our design even more,” Guo said. “We thought about putting an electrical component somewhere, but we want it to be cheap and easy to assemble so we decided to make something very simple and not over-engineer it.”

Other teams are working on a low-cost pigmented bleach solution that indicates what has and hasn’t been decontaminated and then loses its color so as not to stain reusable items, a decontaminating bleach foam, a disposable Ebola containment suit, a patient transportation system, and a mobile platform for rapid response, patient care, and data tracking.

“One of the most pressing needs is decontamination of protection equipment of healthcare workers,” said Dr. Jeffrey Kysar, mechanical engineering chair who serves on the panel of experts. He added, it’s really remarkable how quickly the teams have been able to come up with some very unusual designs.

Meanwhile, as the students continue development and get feedback from world class experts in engineering and public health, the engineering dean’s office is seeking outside funding so that the most promising solutions get produced and sent to where they are needed.

As for Guo, she is living a dream as well as making a contribution to society. “I love electrical engineering and computer science, but mechanical engineering is so physical. You are actually touching everything you are making and using your muscle when you are building. I like that feeling.”

Nancy S. Giges is an independent writer.

Mechanical engineering is so physical. You are actually touching everything you are making and using your muscle when you are building.

Jun Guo, student, Columbia University

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December 2014

by Nancy S. Giges, ASME.org