Just days after the magnitude of the domestic shortage of personal protective equipment (PPE) became apparent, the Lovepop team jumped in headfirst to see how we could help. We captured our efforts in a recent blog post, and every day we continue to make progress towards helping the heroes on the front line. Through our journey, we discovered an underlying structural material shortage that has caused much of the global shortage of N95 respirators. As a team, we have chosen to help with some of the structural problems that lead to our current shortages. This project we now embark on is crucial and not nearly as simple as producing an ANSI Class III medical gown or protective face shield.
What caused the global N95 shortage?
As hospitals around the world started consuming 10x the PPE they normally do, the demand for N95s soared. Stockpiles quickly became depleted. An economist would give a very simple assessment of this situation: demand significantly outpaced supply. So why can't we just increase supply?
The key material required to make N95s is meltblown polypropylene. Unfortunately, this material is difficult to produce. Yes, polypropylene is the same common material found around the house: water bottles, combs -- injected molded plastic pieces in general. Meltblown polypropylene, however, is less common. It is found in filters and it is the critical inner filtration layer of an N95 mask. This is the material that allows its wearer to breathe easily while reducing the inflow of potentially infectious particles.
White cotton candy is the image that first comes to mind when picturing meltblown polypropylene. It's a fluffy collection of filament fibers layered on top of one another to form a non-woven cloth material. Each fiber has a diameter of less than one micron (that's very small). For perspective, a human hair is 100x thicker. In addition to the uniformity of the spacing required for these fibers to form a filter, the magic of this material as a filtration media comes from an electrostatic charge that is induced during its production. That electrostatic charge is what allows the material to remain "breathable", meaning a reduced pressure drop, when drawing air across the filter. Breathability differentiates the experience of inhaling through a meltblown polypropylene filter from that of trying to inhale through a thick vacuum cleaner bag. The challenge with building capacity of this globally-needed material is that it requires large investments in equipment upfront, high levels of technical expertise, and a plant construction timeline of 6-12 months.
Why are we doing this now?
If it was easy to do, we wouldn't be faced with the problems we are today. Yes, there may be simpler challenges for us to take on, but this challenge is important. There have been many times over the past few weeks when we have asked ourselves, "Why are we doing this now?" The answer is three-fold:
- We hope the disease is defeated quickly.
- BUT, it's possible that it could be with us for the next year.
- AND, anything we can do to prepare for a longer-term scenario must be done NOW.
The COVID-19 crisis already has been the largest pandemic in most of our lifetimes, but it was not the first and is unlikely to be the last. We need to prepare for the future, so we do not face this shortage of critical materials again.
As COVID-19 has spread, we have seen too much of our global supply chain break down. Goods no longer crossing borders, and countries enacting export restrictions specifically for the most critical medical supplies and equipment. As a result, we need to establish a long-term secure supply in America of the raw materials required to make N95 respirators. And what better place to do it in than Massachusetts, home to Lovepop HQ as well as the best research organizations and hospitals in the world?
What is next?
Over the summer, we plan to break ground on the Northeast's first meltblown polypropylene manufacturing facility, specifically focused on creating media for N95 respirators. We have teamed up with leading Boston-based construction management firm Fallon Company, which is investing in the project, performing site selection, and providing construction management.
With the support of the Lovepop family, our communities, Mike Fallon and The Fallon Company, and Pierce Schiller, Special Advisor to Lovepop & Project Meltblown CEO, we believe that this undertaking will act as an insurance policy against future events that we pray we will not encounter.
How can you help?
If you or someone you know would like to be involved, please reach out to us at firstname.lastname@example.org. Our teams of engineers and line operators are filling out, our panels of scientific, medical, and industry advisors are growing, as is our support within the government. There is still much work ahead of us.
More about The Fallon Company
The Fallon Company is a privately held commercial real estate owner and developer headquartered in Boston, Massachusetts with regional offices in Charlotte and Raleigh, North Carolina. Founded by Joseph F. Fallon in 1993, The Fallon Company has developed more than $5 billion in real estate, representing more than six million square feet of property. It is proudly recognized as a leader in mixed-use urban development and one of the most active private developers on the East Coast. Fallon brings to its projects a unique focus on large-scale urban design geared toward transforming neighborhoods into cohesive, community-driven environments. For more information about The Fallon Company, visit www.falloncompany.com.