Academics and researchers across Athlone Institute of Technology's three strategic research institutes and two Enterprise Ireland Technology Gateways are pooling their considerable expertise and resources to find solutions to the current public health crisis.

The five research arms of the midlands-based third level institute are collaborating with representatives from industry and academia to achieve this.

One such initiative is being spearheaded by Professor Neil J Rowan, director of the Bioscience Research Institute at Athlone Institute of Technology and an adjunct professor at the School of Medicine at NUI Galway.

Professor Neil J Rowan

Prof Rowan is tackling the global shortage of masks, gloves and other personal protective equipment (PPE) desperately needed by frontline workers and other healthcare professionals.

Due to its composition, most PPE is single use and needs to be removed and disposed of very carefully to prevent inadvertent transmission of disease; however, the global shortage has necessitated that we find a way of reusing PPE, including masks.

Prof Rowan has teamed up with colleagues in NUI Galway to explore ways of safely decontaminating PPE without destroying it. His findings, which will have far-reaching implications for Ireland, have been published recently in the environmental journal STOTEN.

Recommending use of a vaporised hydrogen peroxide

Essentially, Prof Rowan is recommending the use of a vaporised hydrogen peroxide (VH2O2) to neutralise COVID-19 and other contagions. This innovative solution is eco-sustainable and suitable for use in-house in a hospital setting which makes it ideal for combating COVID-19.

Dr Noel Gately, who manages the APT Technology Gateway based in the Materials Research Institute at Athlone Institute of Technology, is also involved with this effort and is a member of the rapid response team concerning the deployment of high throughput pulsed UV light as a rapid solution for reprocessing personal and protective equipment.

Dr Noel Gately

In tandem with this, Dr Gately and his colleagues in APT, along with Alan Murphy and Gavin Keane and their respective teams in analytical and design services, are helping to develop innovative reusable face masks to combat coronavirus.

Piece of PPE dubbed the 'Limerick visor'

The team recently donated a state-of-the-art injection moulding machine to help industry ‘fast-track’ the mass production of face visors for frontline healthcare workers. The machine is currently producing a piece of PPE dubbed the 'Limerick visor'.

Thanks to Dr Gately and his team of engineers and materials scientists, industry can now create hundreds of visors a day. “A lot of companies are trying to 3D print PPE, but it can take a couple of hours to print just one item,” he says.

“Whereas with an injection moulding machine, you can produce one of these a minute. That’s quite a scale-up into mass manufacturing and will help provide vital equipment for frontline workers.”

Athlone Institute of Technology is also providing essential services in terms of analytical testing and processing for frontline companies working to produce PPE, ventilators and medical device equipment.

'Reopened our CISD testing labs'

“We reopened our CISD testing labs following a flood of requests from medical device companies who desperately needed the essential testing services offered,” says Dr Declan Devine, director of the Materials Research Institute at Athlone Institute of Technology. “These services are essential to maintaining the production of critical components needed in the fight against COVID-19.”

As well as this, Dr Declan Devine, along with his colleagues in APT, is helping the HSE identify a manufacturer for swabs – a vital medical tool needed for coronavirus testing. The team of materials scientists and engineers used their network to source a supplier of polymer sheets to manufacture the swabs.

They have also consulted with a major medical device manufacturer and advised them of a potential supplier for material for face shields and the design of an injection moulding tool for making respirators. CISD, their product design arm, will support this activity and continue to offer other support as required.

The Bioscience Research Institute has lent a state-of-the-art high-throughput molecular diagnostic PCR machine to Tullamore hospital to be used for COVID-19 testing and confirmation. Many of its PhD candidates are also engaging in volunteerism and helping with diagnostics.

Manufacture individual patient hoods

Athlone Institute of Technology is currently working with the IDA to help manufacture individual patient hoods. Staff are acting as consultants to the designated task force coordinator and are helping to identify sources of RF welding to manufacture these hoods. They are also consulting on the mould design for the manufacturing of other hood components.

“Over the course of its 50-year history, Athlone Institute of Technology has established itself as a centre of academic excellence with world-class research and development capabilities,” says its president, Professor Ciarán Ó Catháin, who has led the institute since 2000 and overseen its transformation from a fledgling IoT to an award-winning educational powerhouse.

“As the sole higher education provider serving the midlands region, it is vital that we continue to utilise our considerable expertise and strong industry connections to support our communities and help combat this global crisis.”

More than 160 staff right across the institute have volunteered to help the HSE during the current public health emergency, including nursing staff who are working on the frontlines.

Nursing students are also being employed by the HSE to assist in the fight against COVID-19 while social care students, among others, are working in primary care and nursing homes.

Tremendous support from local communities

“We would like to acknowledge the tremendous support that we have got from our local communities as we implement the government action plan in response to COVID-19. We can’t stop the virus, but together, we can reduce the impact it has on ourselves, our families, communities, our health service and our day-to-day lives,” says Pat Bennett, chief officer, HSE Midlands, Louth and Meath.

“Our goal is to slow the spread of coronavirus. If we can slow it down, we give ourselves, and our most vulnerable people, more options and more time for care and recovery. Our collective efforts are critical, we need to do this together, as one community. We will be asking everyone to play their part, to help each other.”

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