AMHERST, Mass. – Jessica Schiffman, associate professor of chemical engineering, is collaborating with researchers at the University of Maine to develop a novel bio-inspired membrane that can capture COVID-19 airborne droplets.
Schiffman and her UMaine counterparts received grants totaling more than $225,000 from the National Science Foundation’s (NSF) early-concept grants for exploratory research program, also called EAGER. Collaborating on the project is UMaine biomedical engineer Caitlin Howell and virologist Melissa Maginnis.
Drawing inspiration from the pitcher plant, which has a slippery rim and an inner membrane to capture insects in its digestive fluids, the team will bioengineer a composite material with a liquid layer on the surface to capture pathogenic particles for study. The goal of the research is to develop an insert into an air filtration system to capture virus-containing droplets to make collection and analysis easier. The technology would be inexpensive and widely available for high-risk locations, such as hospitals, schools or elder-care facilities.
Schiffman said the fact that COVID-19 spreads through bioaerosols makes disease surveillance, containment and treatment a challenge. Previous designs of aerosol collection systems have had limited success when it comes to retrieving intact virus particles from large volumes of air. A liquid-gated membrane system, inspired by the pitcher plant, would employ a water-immiscible liquid on the surface of the membrane to create a reusable, reversible liquid trap for live pathogenic particles.
The team will explore the development of new intellectual property that would be well-aligned with manufacturing capabilities in both Massachusetts’ and Maine’s pulp and paper industry.