U of Guelph team tests produce decontamination technology on hospital gowns

Researchers at the University of Guelph recently received $25,000 dollars from the Ontario Centres of Excellence to test technology typically used to get rid of bacteria on produce for use in hospitals during the novel coronavirus pandemic.

Goal is to protect healthcare workers and those who sort and clean hospital linens

Keith Warriner, right, with Clean Works engineers Kevin Chen and Luke Court. The team is working on technology to decontaminate surgical gowns. (Submitted by Denise Vanderveen)

As hospitals experience an increased demand for patient care during the COVID-19 pandemic, researchers at the University of Guelph hope they have a way to help alleviate the stress and combat the virus. 

The group is working to adapt technology normally used to decontaminate fruit like apples and peaches to see if it can properly disinfect surgical gowns. 

They recently received $25,000 in funding from the Ontario Centres of Excellence to perfect the technology, and test if it can be adapted for use in hospitals. 

The proposed decontamination method is known as a forced air ozone reactor. Typically, stainless steel reactor units are used to decontaminate up to 500 kilograms of produce at a time by using forced air to blow a gas called ozone through the unit. 

Now, batches of surgical gowns contained inside a much-smaller metal chamber will go through the same process. The goal is to help protect healthcare workers, as well as those who sort and clean hospital linens. 

A forced air ozone reactor is often used to decontaminate up to 500 kilograms of produce, notably apples and peaches, at a time. Researchers hope it can clean batches of surgical gowns. (Submitted by Paul Moyer)

The university's Keith Warriner, a food science professor, is collaborating with CleanWorks Corp., to refine the technology. 

'Innovation being sped up'

Paul Moyer, the co-founder of Clean Works, says the technology should be more environmentally friendly that current practises. He says it saves on energy and water, compared to doing several loads of laundry to get rid of viruses.

However, the proposed cleaning technology is not intended for heavily stained surgical gowns, which will still need to be washed in the laundry. 

"We are looking at a whole new method of cleaning and sanitizing, you know, not just gowns, but other things by looking at a whole different direction," Moyer said. 

"We're very excited to take this technology and move it forward." 

Moyer, who is also a fruit farmer, first came up with the idea of creating a forced air ozone reactor to decontaminate produce after hearing about the listeria outbreak in California in 2015. 

While his fruit wasn't affected, he wanted to solve the problem and teamed up with Warriner to find a solution. 

Now, the team is working together to use the technology they've developed to sanitize personal protection equipment, including surgical gowns and N95 masks. 

Both Warriner and Moyer hope their technology will not only ease the stress faced in hospitals, but also kill COVID-19 found on surgical gowns. (Submitted by Denise Vanderveen)

"Right now, the world is moving at a fast pace in order to make the world a safer place," Moyer said. "Not only is the innovation being sped up, but the acceptance of this innovation is being sped up too because of the state the world is in."

Both Warriner and Moyer hope their technology will not only ease the stress faced in hospitals, but also kill COVID-19 found on surgical gowns. 

Although the team hasn't specifically tested effects on the virus, Warriner expects it will. He said the team often uses its technology to get rid of bacteria like E.coli on produce, which is "much tougher" than COVID-19. 

"The thing with COVID, that's an enveloped virus, so it's very sensitive," Warriner said. "We have confidence that we could decontaminate gowns." 

'Canadian made' 

With the new provincial funding, Moyer says the team now has more resources to continue working on the technology they've developed. 

If successful, Moyer adds that he would like to see their methods being used in hospitals all over Canada and the world. 

"We're very excited that it's Canadian born and Canadian made," he said. "It showcases Canadian ingenuity at work." 


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