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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.

Sewage testing for COVID spread receives special federal funding

A team of UWindsor researchers testing sewage as an early warning system for the community spread of COVID-19 has received a $300K boost in federal funding.

On Nov. 5, 2020, Navdeep Bains, Minister of Innovation, Science and Industry, announced the funding to the team led by UWindsor’s Mike McKay, executive director of UWindsor’s Great Lakes Institute for Environmental Research. The money comes from the Canadian Foundation for Innovation (CFI) which is directing a special fund of $28 million for equipment needed for research related to COVID-19. Dr. McKay’s project, in conjunction with fellow UWindsor researchers Daniel Heath, Lisa Porter, Christopher Weisener and Civil and Environmental Engineering professor, Rajesh Seth, is one of 79 across the country to receive money from the fund.

“The investment from CFI builds capacity in our surveillance program that will position us to more quickly inform public health units on community infections revealed from wastewater,” said McKay, executive director of the Great Lakes Institute for Environmental Research. “The infrastructure supported by this award will also be an important element to advance screening efforts on campus to facilitate an eventual return to face-to-face instruction at UWindsor.”

Nano-fibres seen as solution for face mask filters

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 is part of a research team using computer modeling to help construction workers operate safely during a pandemic.

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

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

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 have received $50,000 from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council to design a portable device to test for COVID-19, replacing the need for samples to be sent to a laboratory for analysis.

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

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

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.

Engineering team partners with local manufacturer to combat spread of COVID-19

A local manufacturer has teamed with a group of researchers at UWindsor’s Faculty of Engineering to help combat the spread of COVID-19.

Valiant TMS is assisting Dr. Jill Urbanic’s research team with the production of brackets for 3D-printed face shields. The global company headquartered in Windsor has provided material, testing, building and assembly support. 

“We have no specific production targets. We are trying to meet requests and there have been several from a wide variety of front-line personnel,” Dr. Urbanic says. “This need is what is driving us forward.”

So far, shields have been delivered locally to three nursing departments at Windsor Regional Hospital, two nursing homes and an x-ray clinic and up Highway 401 to the intensive care unit at St. Joseph’s Hospital and St. Joseph's Family Medical and Dental Centre in Toronto. 

The shields are designed to be lightweight and adjustable in size. Urbanic says the designs have been optimized to leverage the most effective manufacturing processes. 

“The top cover and retainer can be laser cut or water jet cut. The materials should allow for reuse. We would like to pursue molding the flexi-band with local mold shops, if they are interested.” 

Student enterprise producing face shield components

ourth-year computer science student Parker Drouillard shows off the face shield parts he has been producing with 3D printers.

Tucked away in the Ed Lumley Centre for Engineering Innovation is a 3D print shop that has been quietly expanding its fleet.

In just a week, Parker Drouillard, the owner of Pep Corporation, has doubled the number of his self-made 3D printers to assist in the global fight against the spread of COVID-19.

“We normally print automotive parts, but our clients, mostly automotive manufacturers, are being asked to retool,” Drouillard says from his shop floor filled with the whirring sound of nearly 30 printers hard at work.

“As a result, quite of a few our partners have reached out to us.”

The fourth-year computer science student has been approached by clients and businesses from Windsor to Toronto that need parts to assemble ventilators and face shields. He’s now preparing for large orders that can take anywhere from 20 minutes to four hours to produce.

Drouillard has also joined forces with community partners WEtech-AllianceEPICentre UWindsor, and Windsor-Essex FIRST to donate 500 face shields to essential workers across Windsor-Essex and Chatham-Kent. He is producing the plastic components that hold the face shield in place based on a design created by Kelcom 3D Division.