Pitt engineers donate, create supplies for health care workers


Photo courtesy of Dan Yates

Dan Yates, the Makerspace’s innovation project coordinator, is the only person currently allowed in the Makerspace, but he relies on a team of about 50 students in the Makerspace club to help design face masks and face shields.

By Rebecca Johnson, Senior Staff Writer

On a typical day, Goetz Veser, a chemical engineering professor, uses his lab’s 20-liter batch reactors for complex dispersion reactions. But in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, he’s been using them to make hand sanitizer.

Veser said when he realized the simplicity of the mixing process, he was eager for his lab to help alleviate shortages of hand sanitizer at local UPMC hospitals.

“We’re not reacting anything — we’re just mixing,” Veser said. “Major medical centers including UPMC can’t get their hands on hand sanitizer anymore, and the people who put themselves in front of COVID-19 patients every day need it more than any private person.”

Within the Swanson School of Engineering, numerous labs and individuals, including Veser, have donated their supplies, time and ideas to help reduce the shortage of personal protective equipment in Pittsburgh hospitals.

According to the World Health Organization, the shortage of personal protective equipment, such as N95 respirators, gowns and gloves, represents one of the gravest threats in fighting the coronavirus pandemic. This shortage could make health care workers, and therefore their patients, more susceptible to the virus. In Italy, as of last Monday, more than 4,000 health care workers were infected and over a dozen died partly because of extreme equipment shortages.

Pitt shut down all nonessential research last week as the University further reduced its operating status, leaving labs with a glut of unused supplies that would normally be needed for the rest of the semester. The University announced its first student case of COVID-19 in Holland Hall on Sunday. According to the Pennsylvania Department of Health data, Allegheny County currently has 265 cases, while there are 3,394 cases statewide.

Carla Ng, an assistant professor of civil and environmental engineering, said she heard news reports about a lack of PPE in hospitals and thought about her lab’s unused supplies. She said her donations were inspired by how she thinks people should respond to other global issues, like climate change.

“We need government and health care to step in for the big stuff, but that doesn’t mean that the little stuff doesn’t matter,” Ng said. “It may not be able to solve the problem by itself but it definitely helps.”

Ng’s email to David Vorp, the school’s associate dean for research, asking how she could donate PPE led Vorp to coordinate donations across 50 engineering, chemistry, physics and biology labs at Pitt. He made a Monday afternoon delivery to a UPMC storage facility with a truckful of PPE including gloves, face and eye protection, goggles, face shields, bottles of ethanol and isopropyl alcohol, hand sanitizer, gowns, N95 masks and shoe covers. The equipment will now be dispersed throughout the entire UPMC system.

Vorp said he initially expected to deliver the supplies in his car, but because of the overwhelming response of labs, he had to arrange for a large truck from the University.

“It was such a great feeling to see the response of the Pitt community,” Vorp said. “I originally thought me and my wife were going to deliver in our SUV, but then after the overwhelming supplies and support, we realized that wasn’t going to be possible.”

While many Pitt labs only have the supplies to make a one-time donation, Veser, who has already made 30 gallons of hand sanitizer, is looking to create more. The lab currently has the capacity to make 60 more gallons. Veser said his only problem is running out of alcohol, and he is currently looking for companies and other labs to donate their remaining supply.

“It’s too expensive for us to buy additional alcohol, so I thought let’s try the power of social media to get donations,” Veser said.

Other members of the engineering department are also working to address supply shortages by utilizing a crop of 20 3-D printers and laser cutters in the Benedum Hall Makerspace. Dan Yates, the Makerspace’s innovation project coordinator, said he is focused on creating designs from materials that can be sourced easily to avoid possible shortages. He said they are focusing on printing and fabricating face masks and face shields.

“In two weeks, we might not have elastic to source any more,” Yates said. “We’re already running so low on these materials, that we have to be thoughtful about designing things to be easily manufactured and from parts that are easily sourced.”

While Yates is the only person allowed in the Makerspace to physically work on the printers, he is relying on a team of about 50 students in the Makerspace club who are working remotely on design challenges.

Audrey Chester, a senior mechanical engineering major and president of the Makerspace, spends more than five hours everyday working on designs for two different types of masks — one that is FDA-approved for use in hospitals and another lower-grade mask for other essential workers.

“We’re trying to work with UPMC doctors to create masks to be used inside hospitals to help with PPE shortage,” Chester said. “We’re also trying to make masks that grocery store clerks could use and the trash collectors on strike. They’re carrying the nation, so we want to help.”

Chester said that despite the large time commitment, she never questioned her involvement.

“There was no moment when I was like ‘Do I want to work on this or not?’” Chester said. “We can, so we absolutely should.”

Yates said he hopes that in the coming weeks the Makerspace will be able to send a file to a manufacturer that is usable on a wide scale. He also added that this project has demonstrated why he wanted to become an engineer in the first place.

“I wanted to become an engineer because I wanted to help people,” Yates said. “This is a really unique opportunity to show the power of the Pitt community to come together — with our students, with the larger community and with the hospitals — and put all that collective talent and resources together to try to solve this crisis.”