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“We knew the pandemic was coming.”

By Charlene Macielag | December 11, 2020 | 3 min read | Coronavirus, Community Health

Dr. P in the mask factory

After attending a filtration conference in late February, Dr. Behnam Pourdeyhimi returned to North Carolina determined to create filters for masks at North Carolina State University (NC State).

“At the conference,” he said, “we already knew the pandemic was coming. It was all we could talk about.”

Since 1998, Dr. Pourdeyhimi has been leading The Nonwovens Institute (NWI) at NC State. Nonwoven materials are the primary material used in medical settings. Think gowns, masks, head gear, shoe covers – anything disposable.

Within two weeks of returning from the conference, medical professionals all over the world were in dire need of these materials. The pandemic had hit the United States, and reports were already suggesting a shortage of PPE in hospitals.

So Dr. Pourdeyhimi and his team at NWI got to work creating several new filters for face masks. But in order for the filters work properly, they needed to be electrostatically charged to capture fine particles. It would have taken a few months to buy a charging unit – so the team built one of their own.

Two men with masks work in factory unspooling a large roll of mask material

Producing filters at the Institute helped with the shortages of base materials. But they still didn’t have the capacity to add these filters into masks and respirators. That required another special machine. So, NWI purchased two converting machines.

“We didn’t have the space readily available to keep the machines, so I reached out to one of NWI’s partners locally,” Dr. Pourdeyhimi said. Freudenberg Performance Materials enthusiastically responded. Not only would they host the machines, but they would purchase additional machines to help with the pandemic. Blue Cross and Blue Shield of North Carolina also invested in two machines.

In October 2020, Blue Cross NC announced its unique collaboration with The Nonwovens Institute and four other North Carolina organizations. The goal was to ensure PPE for our state’s frontline health care workers. The collaboration, called Made in NC, united the public and private sector organizations. Together they will produce nearly 2 million N95 respirators per year. This work addresses the urgent need for affordable access to PPE in communities that need it most.

Under The Nonwovens Institute’s leadership, the machines in North Carolina have now produced millions of masks for frontline health care workers. This allows them to keep themselves and their communities safe.

“In early March, the university drastically reduced on-campus operations,” Dr. Pourdeyhimi said, “but we never left.”

Dr. Behnam Pourdeyhimi is a professor at NC State University. He is the founder of The Nonwovens Institute, which traces its origin back to a State/Industry-University Cooperative Research Center funded by the National Science Foundation. In October 2020, Blue Cross NC announced its unique collaboration with 5 NC organizations – including The Nonwovens Institute – to ensure the state’s frontline health care workers receive the critical personal protective equipment (PPE) they need to keep themselves and their communities safe.