Mitacs research fellow helps pivot decontamination from fruit to N95 masks

Innovation leads to speedy COVID-19 disinfectant for personal protective equipment

When postdoctoral fellow Mahdiyeh Hasani of University of Guelph came to Canada in 2017 and began working with Professor Keith Warriner to decontaminate produce, she had no idea that in just a few years COVID-19 would dramatically change the world — and the impact of her research.

“We realized that decontaminating masks is similar to cleaning fresh produce in that microbes can hide in nooks and folds,” says Hasani, “and that the materials used in masks is sensitive to damage like fruit.”

The partnership began in 2015, when her supervisor sought out Mitacs to support a research fellowship and they started working with Clēan Works, a company based in Beamsville, Ontario, that needed a solution to ensure apples were free of dangerous microbes.

As fresh produce accounts for the greatest number of foodborne illness in North America — over 200 confirmed cases of E. coli were linked to romaine lettuce in a recent outbreak — the need is great. Because of these outbreaks, the Safe Foods for Canadians Act requires preventative controls and monitoring for safety within the fresh produce industry.

Creating an effective, research-based food decontaminant

When Hasani joined Warriner’s research team, her work focused on engineering processes for decontaminating lemons and lettuce.

“Challenges need solutions, and research-based technologies need to provide those solutions,” says Warriner.

Although water washing is the traditional method to remove contaminants, it is not entirely effective, and in many cases can cause cross-contamination with clean produce. Given the challenges, Warriner had been working on a non-water-based cleaning method for produce.

A food processing engineer, Hasani helped Warriner’s microbiology research team hone a two-pronged decontamination method.

The first prong is based on an advanced oxidation process that uses UV light to react with hydrogen peroxide and ozone to deactivate microbes. The continuous process can be completed within 30 seconds. The units are scalable, so small units can process small volumes and large units can decontaminate 50,000 cases of produce per hour.

The second portion of this approach uses a forced-air reactor to deactivate microbes and can decontaminate large batches of produce within 20 minutes.

“It’s like safe dry cleaning for produce,” says Warriner.

The technology introduced a preventative control to reduce contaminants, giving assurance of selling a safe product with systems that can be monitored, validated, and verified in accordance with regulatory requirements. Their decontamination method also increases produce shelf life and reduces both food waste and water consumption.

COVID-19 pivot: from produce to N95 PPE

The COVID-19 pivot began when Clēan Works responded to the Government of Canada’s call for technology for personal protective equipment (PPE), and to enable N95 masks’ working life to be extended.

“We knew from studies by others that coronavirus is very sensitive to hydroxyl-radicals and is 10 times more sensitive than E. coli. We performed trials on inoculated masks, and it worked even better on masks than on fresh produce,” says Hasani.

This set the team’s work in motion to gain approval from Health Canada through support from the National Research Council. In just three weeks, the team developed an N95 mask-cleaning solution based on the Clēan Flow process.

Hasani’s role was to optimize the Clēan Flow system to decontaminate N95 masks and provide feedback to Clēan Works’ engineers on the best system configuration. The Mitacs fellow performed the validation trials and prepared the reports for Health Canada approval.

A new business direction

The pivot from produce decontamination to N95 masks enabled Clēan Works to diversify and establish a new branch, Clēan Works Medical.

They have received Health Canada approval and have supplied machines to hospitals, senior resident homes, and emergency medical services. In addition, they have supplied the National Research Council of Canada and the Department of National Defense with machines.

As of May 2020, there has been orders for 75 of the decontamination units. Clēan Works continues to supply units to the fresh produce industry along with expansion to new sectors.

In the near future, the company intends to extend Clēan Flow units to disinfection from N95 masks to surgical masks and other PPE such as goggles, face masks, and gowns. They eventually plan to expand to a wide range of items including keyboards, packages, phones, bags, and shoes. Essentially, the technology can serve as a firewall to protect facilities like care homes, hospitals, airports, retail businesses, and schools.

“This is a perfect example of how ideas in the lab can be transitioned to commercial processes and make a difference,” says Hasani.

According to Clēan Works CEO Mark VanderVeen, the partnership has proved mutually beneficial. “By working together, it is possible to achieve rapid progress to benefit all involved,” says VanderVeen. “Innovation enables a company to diversify, thereby gaining a competitive advantage.”

Given the capability and potential of the Clēan Works system, the team welcomes challenges faced by other sectors. And is interested in addressing potential barriers.

“This would not have been possible outside the Mitacs program,” says Hasani. “Overall the Mitacs program has not only provided motivation but also a foundation to build a productive career. I really wish to thank Dr. Warriner and Mark VanderVeen of Clēan Works for their continued support.”

Mitacs’s programs receive funding from multiple partners across Canada. We thank the Government of Canada, the Government of Alberta, the Government of British Columbia, Research Manitoba, the Government of New Brunswick, the Government of Newfoundland and Labrador, the Government of Nova Scotia, the Government of Ontario, Innovation PEI, the Government of Quebec, Fonds de recherche du Québec – Nature et technologies, and the Government of Saskatchewan for supporting us to foster innovation and economic growth throughout the country.

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