MTU Engineers Build Mobile Unit to Clean COVID-19 PPE

Victoria D. Doty

A refrigerated shipping container. Commercial-grade baking sheets. A modified oven.
These are the key pieces of a prototype that uses heat to sanitize personal protection
equipment (PPE).

The idea is simple: Disinfect PPE at temperatures hot enough to break up coronaviruses
and do so in a big, moveable oven that can be quickly made with local, off-the-shelf
parts that are easy to get and put together. The unit can clean 5,000 to 10,000 PPE
units every two hours and can run continuously. 

The design is streamlined: Use a thick-walled shipping container with the refrigeration
unit swapped for a heating unit run on an electric generator, then line it with stainless
steel racks and trays holding PPE, and heat it up to 140-170 degrees Fahrenheit.

The manufacturing is built on community: The parts are all on hand in commercial bakeries,
restaurants, HVAC shops, shipping yards and universities — and could be quickly delivered
to hospital and clinic loading docks.

An engineering team from Michigan Technological University tested the prototype in
a campus parking lot alongside local company Aire Care. They call it the Mobile Thermal
Utility (MTU) Sanitizer. The prototype is now heading downstate for further validation testing. The World Health Organization and U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
(CDC) recommend heat-soaking to eliminate coronaviruses like the one that causes COVID-19.
The CDC offers guidelines on
temperature ranges and time for effectiveness.

inside of a shipping container lined with reflective panels
electrical side of MTU Sanitizer shipping container
The “hot” side of the MTU Sanitizer conducts and reflects heat to clean PPE; the “cold”
side houses the electrical work to control the shipping container’s environment. Credit:
Andrew Barnard

“If Houghton, Michigan, can find 25 racks, the right kind of shipping container, a
heating unit and the experts to put a prototype all together in a couple days, then
this could be deployed in any city in our nation,” said Dan Barnard, co-inventor of the
design along with his wife Amy, a biomedical engineer by training. Dan’s cousin, Andrew
Barnard, is a mechanical engineer at Michigan Tech and the director of the Great Lakes Research Center.

“Our goal is to make a massively available and scalable mobile sanitation unit for
hospital PPE. We’ve seen DIY versions using food dehydrators and ovens; we’re making
it bigger, but still transportable,” Andrew Barnard said. “PPE shortages are expected
to last weeks to months and we want to do something about that now.”

The team includes Amy Barnard’s father, Brad Andreae, owner of an industrial finishing
system and water and wastewater treatment and heat processing equipment manufacturer,
Therma-Tron-X, Inc., who offered insight on how to make the heating unit work, and thermodynamics expert
Jeffrey Allen, 
John F. and Joan M. Calder Professor in Mechanical Engineering at Michigan Tech.  

PPE includes lab coats, gowns, N95 masks, face shields, sleeves and other protective
garments that help prevent the spread of disease and keep health care workers and
lab technicians safe.
 In addition to disinfecting large amounts of PPE, upwards of 60,000 PPE units or more each day, the MTU Sanitizer can clean large items like gurneys, beds,
firefighter gear and other contaminated materials that are hard to clean using chemicals
or smaller ovens. 

The team received $32,800 in seed funding from the College of Engineering and is working with local Sen. Ed McBroom, Rep. Greg Markkanen and Sen. Adam Hollier
of Detroit.
InvestUP has been an indispensable partner in locating resources, helping build collaborations
and connecting the U.P. resources with the affected regions downstate. 

“Detroit and the U.P. have a lot in common when we talk about internet, health issues
and affordable energy. We face many similar challenges from different perspectives,”
said Sen. Hollier. “The MTU Sanitizer is a game changer. The U.P. and Michigan Tech
brought their expertise to bear so that our health care workers, home care workers
and first responders can do their work safely. These engineers saw a problem and got
to work to fix it — and I’m grateful for that.”

Sen. Hollier, who is a first lieutenant in the Army Reserve, helped coordinate with
the National Guard to get the MTU Sanitizer to southeast Michigan and is working with
local hospitals to get it into service as quickly as possible.  

“I think this is another opportunity for the National Guard to change its legacy in
Detroit from 1967 and respond to people’s needs today and make a difference in this
pandemic,” Sen. Hollier said, adding that he is working with Michigan Tech and the
Attorney General’s Office to secure Emergency Use Authorization and move the prototype
through FDA certification to make the design and licensing widely available to communities
and health care facilities across the country.  

“It’s important that we get this sanitation unit approved and in operation as soon
as possible,” Sen. McBroom said. “The creativity and thoughtfulness of this engineering
team at Michigan Tech in the Upper Peninsula to create a unit that can travel to hard-hit
areas like Detroit is fantastic and worth celebrating. I will always remember the
people like this team and my colleague Sen. Hollier who have relentlessly put their
ingenuity and hard work to the test to help win this battle and protect our workers
on the frontlines.”

“As an alumni, this is an important collaboration between local groups, the state
and the university. This is a way to bring everyone to the table and come up with
solutions to combat this crisis,” said Rep. Markkanen. “It’s what the governor has
been calling for and Michigan Tech is delivering.”

Andrew Barnard agrees that time is of the essence. 

“We want to get this design out there as quickly as possible,” he said. “And we want
to make sure it’s done right.”

Please direct all inquiries about the mobile PPE sanitation unit to [email protected] and visit to stay up to date on COVID-19 information on campus.

Michigan Technological University is a public research university, home to more than
7,000 students from 54 countries. Founded in 1885, the University offers more than
120 undergraduate and graduate degree programs in science and technology, engineering,
forestry, business and economics, health professions, humanities, mathematics, and
social sciences. Our campus in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula overlooks the Keweenaw Waterway
and is just a few miles from Lake Superior.

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