A multidisciplinary team of researchers is working to improve the design, function and safety of personal protective equipment, or PPE, for health care workers.

The team, led by Guowen Song, a professor and the Noma Scott Lloyd Chair in Textiles and Clothing at Iowa State University, received a $1.8 million grant from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to support the work. Song says the COVID-19 pandemic has exposed weaknesses in current PPE systems, which is why the team will focus on developing biological self-decontaminating fabrics to protect against live pathogens.

“We’re looking to the future of PPE and how to provide better protection,” Song said. “Since the pandemic, we made this a high priority as the data demonstrate the deficiencies that exist. More and more health care workers were infected during the pandemic because of the overload of work and the high-frequency contact with patients, so there is an urgency.”

The emphasis on self-decontaminating materials is critical, Song said, as pathogens such as COVID-19, Ebola and SARS can live on PPE and be transmitted through the air and on surfaces. The Iowa State team, along with researchers from the universities of California, Davis; Cincinnati; and Iowa, will also work to improve the function, fit and comfort of existing PPE. The research has the potential to benefit other industries as well as consumers.

“We see a lot of potential to extend this project to other occupations,” said Rui Li, a research assistant professor in apparel, events and hospitality management. “The technology we’re working to develop for health care workers could transfer to other occupations, especially during a pandemic when all occupations need certain levels of protection.”

The research will build upon existing work by Iowa State researchers in apparel design, materials science and engineering, and kinesiology. In 2016, Iowa State joined Advanced Functional Fabrics of America, a public-private partnership funded by the Department of Defense that aims to develop new textiles and fabrics to improve protective gear for defense and consumer needs. Work by ISU researchers has focused on engineering a glove for firefighters that provides heat protection without hindering function. The team also recently received a Presidential Interdisciplinary Research Initiative (PIRI) award to develop an integrated team to perform a convergent approach for PPE innovation.

Other members of the ISU research team include James Lang, an assistant professor of kinesiology; and Li-Shan Chou, department chair of kinesiology.