RMIT: Indigenous researcher paves road to success with PPE innovation

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The PhD scholar and Vice-Chancellor’s Indigenous Pre-Doctoral Research Fellow at RMIT is part of the University’s School of Engineering team that is the first to investigate the feasibility of recycling three key types of PPE – isolation gowns, face masks and rubber gloves – into concrete.

Kilmartin-Lynch said the research brought a circular economy approach to the challenge of dealing with healthcare waste. Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, an estimated 54,000 tonnes of PPE waste has been produced on average globally each day. About 129 billion disposable face masks are used and discarded around the world every month.

“Everyone sees face masks and other PPE littering the streets,” said Kilmartin-Lynch, who is first author on three separate peer-reviewed research papers.

“As engineers and researchers walking through the streets, we decided to sit down and think of a way to address this problem and that’s what inspired us to find this innovative way to reduce pandemic-generated waste by using it in civil engineering applications.

“Our research found that incorporating the right amount of shredded PPE could improve the strength and durability of concrete.”

Kilmartin-Lynch said we urgently need smart solutions for the ever-growing pile of COVID-19 generated waste.

“This challenge will remain even after the pandemic is over,” he said.

His path to a research career
Kilmartin-Lynch completed a Bachelor of Engineering (Civil and Infrastructure) at RMIT before applying for the Vice-Chancellor’s Indigenous Pre-Doctoral Research Fellowship.

“That’s how I got into research and where I am now,” he said.

“I’m passionate about concrete – I think about it most of the time. I’m also passionate about sustainability and how we can care for Country, making sure that waste is being put to other uses instead of going to landfill.”

Kilmartin-Lynch wants to show Indigenous youth who have an interest in STEM fields that there are great opportunities available.

“The RMIT Indigenous Pre-Doctoral Research Fellowship provides Indigenous people early career opportunities in research. If you’re curious about the world and want to make a real difference, then you should definitely think about applying for the 2023 program, which is open now for registrations,” he said.

Kilmartin-Lynch is excited that the RMIT team is planning to use their research findings in a field project with industry partner Casafico Pty Ltd.

Published in the journals Case Studies in Construction Materials, Science of the Total Environment and Journal of Cleaner Production, the studies by RMIT School of Engineering researchers demonstrate the potential for PPE to be used as reinforcement materials in structural concrete.

The studies found shredded PPE could increase the strength of concrete by up to 22% and improve resistance to cracking.

Strength and flexibility
In three separate feasibility studies, disposable face masks, rubber gloves and isolation gowns were first shredded then incorporated into concrete at various volumes, between 0.1% and 0.25%.

The research found:

rubber gloves increased compressive strength by up to 22%
isolation gowns increased resistance to bending stress by up to 21%, compressive strength by 15% and elasticity by 12%
face masks increased compressive strength by up to 17%
The next step for the research is to evaluate the potential for mixing the PPE streams, develop practical implementation strategies and work towards field trials.

The team is keen to collaborate with the healthcare and construction industries to further develop the research.

‘A Sustainable Approach on the Utilisation of COVID-19 Plastic Based Isolation Gowns in Structural Concrete’, with RMIT co-authors Dr Rajeev Roychand, Dr Mohammad Saberian, Professor Kevin Zhang and Professor Sujeeva Setunge, is published in Case Studies in Construction Materials (DOI: 10.1016/j.cscm.2022.e01408).

‘Application of COVID-19 single-use shredded nitrile gloves in structural concrete: Case study from Australia’ was published in Science of the Total Environment (DOI: 10.1016/j.scitotenv.2021.151423).

‘Preliminary evaluation of the feasibility of using polypropylene fibres from COVID-19 single-use face masks to improve the mechanical properties of concrete’ was published in Journal of Cleaner Production (DOI: 10.1016/j.jclepro.2021.126460).

The authors acknowledge the generous support of Casafico Pty Ltd, the Lowitja Institute (Australia’s national institute for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander health research), the RMIT X-Ray Facility and RMIT Microscopy and Microanalysis Facility.

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