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Pulp to PPE

Medical grade pulp is in short supply as manufacturers raced to produce personal protective equipment (PPE) such as masks, gowns, and components of N95 respirators, required to help prevent the spread of COVID-19.

Motivated by this need across the health care system, and keeping essential workers safe, Dr. Christa Brosseau and her colleague Dr. Robert Singer, both chemistry professors at Saint Mary’s University (SMU), took the steps to strike up a collaboration with Port Hawkesbury Paper, a pulp mill in Cape Breton.

This research team is investigating different methods and ingredients that could be used in the production of medical grade pulp used to make medical masks and gowns. This 7 member research team at SMU are experimenting with Nova Scotian thermomechanical pulp, made from softwoods such as balsam fir and spruce.

Brosseau and her team are examining new chemical processes that could be integrated in the milling and production of pulp, offering a sustainable, environmentally friendly solution to meet the global demand at the moment for medical pulp.

Elements of the testing process include consideration of such things as pulp fiber length and width, lignin content, and moisture content, among other things. Another goal of this collaborative project is to explore the extent to which wood pulp can be utilized in N95 masks as the mask filtration material.

The mill, which employs about 300 people, provides pulp samples to Dr. Brosseau and her research team in Halifax. If the testing of the pulp and paper products prove to be successful, the company will be in a good position to help supply the health care system with medical-grade pulp.

Drs. Brosseau and Singer, who are analytical and organic chemistry professors respectively, shifted their research focus towards an industry need with the assistance of Springboard’s Industry Engagement Professional, Kevin Buchan, and support from Research Nova Scotia. “We are making excellent progress in this project so far and learning a lot about the pulp and paper industry,” said Dr. Brosseau.

“Port Hawkesbury Paper has been an excellent partner, and we are looking forward to what comes out of this research in the near future. The global demand for medical masks and gowns does not appear to be slowing anytime soon, and we are happy to pivot our research in an effort to help.”