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Shaping the future of PPE with patented Functionalisation Technology


The impact of the SARS-Cov-2 pandemic has been, and continues to be, far reaching and new strains and localised outbreaks still disrupt daily life, economies and global supply chains. One way NIRI has utilised our patented technology and our combined 400 years-plus technical and scientific expertise is to develop a new range of personalised protective equipment (PPE) – An industry-changing solution that immobilises pathogens upon contact with functionalised PPE – preventing infection and the spread of viruses through contact with contaminated garments and masks. A fantastic innovation that uses our own Functionalised Technology which could be incorporated into items and products across multiple sectors.

Steven Neill, Chief Innovation Officer at NIRI provides the context to the development of the new Personal Protective Equipment:

“International vaccination programmes have enabled a return to a ‘new normal’, but vaccines take time to develop, manufacture and distribute. With leading scientists worldwide warning of the increased likelihood of new pandemics, a solution was needed to stall and slow the transmissions of viruses and help prevent the exponential growth of infections. There is a compelling case to help protect healthcare workers, with early reports in Wuhan identifying that infections among medical professionals were occurring during their routine removal of PPE. Virus contaminated gowns and masks cause a high risk of infection to healthcare workers by transmission during and after removal.  Our aim, at NIRI, was to develop a product to offer immediate protection to a PPE user by preventing the spread of pathogens from the surface of the PPE both during and after removal.”

Integration is imperative to its success

Traditionally, biocides or antiviral agents are incorporated into products. However, this has posed concerns about dermatitis, further safety implications and – most significantly during a global pandemic – a delay in getting products to market and the availability of effective solutions for medical professionals due to the need for regulatory approval.  Ross highlights the twin, critical aspects behind the development of this functionalisation technology – speed and cost.

“To maximise adoption, decrease the time to market and, ultimately, to save lives, our key objective was to develop a product that could be quickly and easily manufactured on existing production lines. Therefore, our Advanced Materials Team focused their nonwoven expertise on the task of developing a formulation that could be applied using existing processing methods, irrespective of the polymer or structure of the nonwoven material.”

Chris Fowler, Group Managing Director at NIRI

The pressure on supply chains

As the recent pandemic has shown, supply chains can become stretched and placed under extreme pressure, which has a knock-on effect on the quality and availability of products for end users. As a result, appropriate and innovative products take longer to get to market and windows of opportunity are missed. The traditional approach, whereby advanced materials such as additives for functionalisation of a nonwoven are developed, relies on polymer incorporation and coating methods. While these methods are effective at integrating the material into the nonwoven, the functionality occlusion can vary considerably, and the particle can be fully or partially blocked by the bulk polymer or coating. As a result, the advanced materials can be a prohibitively expensive component, creating a barrier to market due to the excessive costs and materials required to meet the performance criteria.

By contrast, the framework of the Functionalising Technology is unique and patented and can be fully integrated into existing manufacturing processes. By applying a coating to the surface of the fibres only, and preventing occlusion, this process maximises the additive functionality in addition to reducing the quantity of material required. This technology platform enables NIRI’s Advanced Materials Team to quickly and effectively tailor the Functionalising Technology and provide protection against a new pathogen – a versatility unique for the disposable PPE market.

The crucial role of nonwovens

“From the outset, nonwoven fabrics were the leading candidate scaffolds as we looked to develop our Functionalising Technology and, ultimately, this innovative PPE product. Nonwovens are, of course, well established within medical PPE products. Using nonwovens’ inherent properties provides the ability to control surface area and pore size – in turn controlling the airflow and the rate at which the garment can trap the pathogens. By applying a coating to the surface of the nonwoven, the coating immobilises pathogens when they come into contact with the surface of the functionalised PPE, forming a physical bond between the pathogen and the PPE substrate. This prevents both further spread of the pathogen through direct contact when removing a contaminated mask or gown, as well as preventing dispersal of the virus into the environment. The Functionalising Technology can be integrated into existing PPE manufacturing facilities and later disposed of through standard clinical waste routes. This prevents the need for pre-treatment or alterations to existing waste streams, exemplifying the simplicity and integration of this novel PPE solution into the supply chain and existing end user systems, circumventing the traditional problems found in biocide or antiviral agent incorporation into PPE.” – Prof. Stephen Russell, Group Technical Director at NIRI

A flexible approach to product development

Depending on the application and environment under which the Functionalising Technology operates, NIRI can select suitable raw materials, whether environmentally resistant or biodegradable, and then manufacture a scaffold which controls fibre size, surface area and porosity.  Applying the Functionalised Technology to this scaffold then enables the team at NIRI to develop various solutions to address global challenges such public health issues and food security.  The new technology platform that the above example is founded on inherently flexible – one which enables us to develop novel solutions for customers across a broad range of sectors, including military and defence, air and liquid filtration, as well as carbon capture and conversion. In line with much of our R&D, the new Functionalising Technology has numerous sustainability benefits, as the flexibility of the technology can be applied to natural and bio-polymer fibres.

If you would like to find out more about this technology and how it may be incorporated into your new or existing product lines, please get in touch with the NIRI team today. Email enquiries@nirigroup.com or call us on +44 (0)113 350 3829.