COVID-19 Engineering Research

From revolutionizing the COVID-19 testing process to producing face shields for frontline workers, there are several initiatives taking place at UWindsor to combat the spread of COVID-19. 

Faculty of Engineering researchers and students have been busy working alongside members of the community and local industry to provide innovative solutions to challenges sweeping the globe.

Below you'll find the latest UWindsor Engineering projects tackling the global pandemic.

Provincial funding boosts research tracking COVID-19 through sewage

Mike McKay, executive director of UWindsor’s Great Lakes Institute for Environmental Research, is leading a multidisciplinary team that has been collecting and testing weekly samples of wastewater.

Researchers at the University of Windsor using sewage as an early warning system for COVID-19 outbreaks are receiving $540,000 in funding as part of a new provincial wastewater surveillance system co-ordinated by the Ministry of the Environment, Conservation, and Parks.

Mike McKay, executive director of UWindsor’s Great Lakes Institute for Environmental Research, is leading a team that has been collecting and testing weekly samples of wastewater from Windsor, Leamington, Amherstburg, Lakeshore, London, Sault Ste. Marie, North Bay, and Thunder Bay. Dr. McKay’s project, launched early in the pandemic, was among the first in the province and is now part of a network of Ontario labs monitoring sewage for SARS-CoV-2.

The Ontario government has announced it is investing more than $12 million to support and expand the network. The province is partnering with 13 academic and research institutions across Ontario to enhance the ability of local public health units to identify, monitor, and manage potential COVID-19 outbreaks.

Pandemic and the city

Edwin Tam poses in the Ed Lumley Centre for Engineering Innovation

This guest column written by Dr. Edwin Tam, associate professor, civil and environmental engineering, was featured in the latest issue of WE, the Faculty of Engineering’s annual magazine.

The current, global COVID-19 pandemic of 2020 is poised to create a humanitarian crisis in terms of the loss of human life, long term health impacts, and socio-economic upheaval. However, the severity of such impacts varies widely by country, by region, and even city and by city. It would seem as if population size and density would account for the differences experienced by different communities, but these alone cannot explain all inconsistencies: early on, similarly sized regions or cities did not experience the impacts equally, and now months later, there are still widely varying incidents of COVID-19 within the same region as the world faces ongoing waves of the pandemic. 

What are the physical characteristics, demographic profiles, infrastructure, policies, and practices of a community that enhance its resiliency to withstand and overcome a pandemic based on the experiences with the outbreak of COVID-19? Our team – which includes Anneke Smit from Law, Tirupati Bolisetti from Civil Engineering, and Myron Hlynka and Mohamed Belalia from Mathematics and Statistics – is researching what are preferred characteristics and actions for municipalities to improve their resiliency to respond and just as importantly, recover from pandemic scenarios. The initial research is funded by WE-Spark and the VP of Research here at the University of Windsor.

The COVID-19 crisis has highlighted how critical the medical services, transportation of goods and services, information technologies, and municipal utilities are to maintaining a functioning community. What differs by location is the resiliency to sustainably deliver goods and services, and the disruption to work, education, and social activities. There are also controversies – does the infrastructure and systems, such as transit, contribute to the pandemic? How they can be managed? Large, dense urban centres face greater challenges because of the need to coordinate large scale responses, containment, public communication, and much more. At the same time, their size, systems, and institutions may afford them the greatest medical, supply, and resources to respond. In contrast, remote, rural regions have fewer infections, but are concerned they may be overwhelmed should infections surge. Mid-sized municipalities that possess sufficient infrastructure but do not have significant high densities could potentially represent an optimal size to withstand a pandemic. 

But unlike in other disaster scenarios such as flooding, where infrastructure such as roads might be unusable due to physical destruction, most infrastructure systems remain intact in a pandemic crisis. The response measures to a pandemic therefore permit the selective curtailing of targeted municipal systems to reduce transmission. However, reducing services can have unexpected, unintended consequences - including health and related socio-economic impacts, which disproportionately affect vulnerable groups, and may have long-term sustainability impacts. Public transit is a primary example.

Sewage testing for COVID spread receives special federal funding

Windsor Water Treatment Plant

A team of UWindsor researchers is using sewage to track and create an early warning system for the community spread of COVID-19.

Mike McKay, executive director of UWindsor’s Great Lakes Institute for Environmental Research, is leading the project in conjunction with civil and environmental engineering professors, Nihar Biswas and Rajesh Seth and researchers from UWindsor’s Faculty of Science and the University of Tennessee.

Early into the pandemic, Dr. McKay recognized you can determine trends in the infection rates in a given community by detecting the presence of the virus’s genetic signature in the sewage entering wastewater treatment plants.

Nano-fibres seen as solution for face mask filters

Two Uwindsor students wearing mask.

The rise of the COVID-19 pandemic has exposed a worldwide need for readily accessible, high-grade face masks. A University of Windsor professor of materials engineering aims to mitigate this problem.

“The limited supply of essential protective equipment such as N95 face masks, which have been determined to aid in minimizing the spread of this disease, has proven detrimental to both health professionals and the public,” says Reza Riahi.

He is working with local manufacturers to develop activated nano-fibre layers produced by an electrospinning method, where a high voltage is applied to a polymer solution to produce nano-fibres with a high surface area and surface charges. These layers can be used to fabricate filters that are more effective than N95 masks, Dr. Riahl says.

“By using porous functional nano-fibre layers, we can produce high-efficiency mask filters to block fine particles, including bio-airborne, while minimizing breathing effort,” he says of the material, which can also be used as a filter in home-made masks or as a standalone fabric to make masks.

Pandemic protection for construction workers goal of research project

Rajeev Ruparathna Posing

University of Windsor researchers are using computer modeling to help construction workers operate safely and efficiently during pandemics.

Civil engineering professors Rajeev Ruparathna and Niel Van Engelen are developing an implementation strategy for maintaining physical distance using a Building Information Modeling (BIM)-based optimized work schedule. The 4D modeling feature of BIM will allow the duo to predict construction worker movements and make alterations to project schedules to mitigate health risks.

“Site managers will be able to leverage the proposed scheduling technique and training material to enhance site productivity and safety, and avoid costly shutdowns during pandemics,” says Dr. Ruparathna.

Engineering prof developing low-cost ventilator design

Human Lungs

A UWindsor researcher is developing a low-cost ventilator that can be assembled from off-the-shelf components and has almost no moving parts.

Jeff Defoe, a professor of mechanical engineering, will take a simple ventilator design from an initial concept to a working prototype. Dr. Defoe says he expects his model to cost approximately one-tenth the price of most current ventilators.

“The final design will be openly available to enable widespread adoption for manufacturing in case future waves of COVID-19 or other respiratory diseases require high levels of hospitalization in intensive care with ventilators,” he says.

Defoe will finalize the design using flow simulation tools that include human lung and chest cavity characteristics. When the design is proven in a simulated environment, a prototype will be constructed and tested on a medical-grade patient lung simulator device that provides accurate representations of adult pulmonary mechanics and the lung capacity of a typical adult patient.

Researchers study municipal resiliency in pandemics

Windsor Riverfront

What is it about some communities that allows them to manage a pandemic and return to normalcy faster than others?

A UWindsor team led by engineering professor Edwin Tam will delve into that question with sweeping research into municipalities’ experiences under COVID-19. The research team will examine demographics, governance, infrastructure, and services to create a template to help Windsor and Essex County and other cities prepare for future pandemics.

“We hypothesize that specific municipal characteristics enhance a community’s resiliency,” said Dr. Tam. “Our overall goal is to assess if there are physical characteristics, demographic profiles, infrastructure, policies, and practices specific to a community that enhance its ability to withstand and overcome a pandemic.”

Put simply, he said: “We want to know what it is about a city that helps it combat the spread.”

UWindsor research team designing new testing device for COVID-19

Professors Jalal Ahamed, Mitra Mirhassani, Simon Rondeau-Gagné, and Yufeng Tong pictures

UWindsor researchers are trying to revolutionize the testing process for COVID-19 by developing a portable device that is quicker, cheaper, and more accurate than current laboratory tests.

Dubbed Lab-on-a-Chip, the device would allow healthcare workers to test and diagnose patients on the spot, said Jalal Ahamed, one of four UWindsor professors behind the research.

“Accurate, rapid, on-site, and point-of-care detection has paramount importance not only in Canada but also worldwide for early intervention and infection control,” Dr. Ahamed said.

“Development of such a device will be highly impactful in our fight against COVID-19.”

Currently, testing is performed in sophisticated laboratory settings. Patients are swabbed and the samples are sent away to labs, with the turnaround time for results usually measured in days. Lab-on-a-Chip devices could give results in minutes.

Ahamed, who is working on the project with fellow engineering professor Mitra Mirhassani, and chemistry professors Yufeng Tong and Simon Rondeau-Gagné, has been awarded a $50,000 grant from Canada’s Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council. It is the third COVID-related project at UWindsor NSERC has funded at the maximum amount available under a special $15 million fund established to address the pandemic.

Engineering co-op student helps employer increase face shield production

Bogdan Gramisteanu holding face shield

Helping the Vistaprint plant in Lakeshore increase its production of face shields to send to front-line workers fighting COVID-19 was an “amazing” experience for a third-year electrical engineering student serving a co-op term with the company.

Bogdan Gramisteanu designed a layout for the shields that optimized the number that could be cut at once, which helped the plant produce 100,000 shields a week, says manager Diane Labute.

“Within hours he had re-programmed the equipment to produce the product,” she says. “It is refreshing to see an aspiring engineering student with an insatiable desire to learn and solve problems.”

Drawing on a design already in use by local hospitals, the shields have a fully adjustable band. The Vistaprint team made multiple changes in response to client suggestions, Gramisteanu says: “It felt great when we got the feedback from the hospital that they really liked the design and got the initial order of face shields.”

Prof seeking to harness power of gaming to fight pandemic

Eunsik Kim, an engineering professor posing

A UWindsor researcher is applying game elements to life in social isolation as a way of combating COVID-19.

Eunsik Kim, an engineering professor who specializes in gamification, is looking into ways of offering virtual rewards for things like social distancing, self-isolation, fitness, or even handwashing during the pandemic.

“We will use game elements in a non-game context to encourage people to maintain healthy practices, not just for entertainment, but to educate people,” Dr. Kim said.

“In addition, by connecting with others through gamification the loneliness epidemic associated with social distancing, quarantine, and isolation can be allayed.”

Gamification is the application of typical elements of game-playing — competition, scoring, and rules of play — to encourage participation. Gamification encourages participants to engage in desired behaviours by capitalizing on the human psychological predisposition to engage in gaming.