ExxonMobil Ramps Up Mask, Isopropyl Alcohol Production As COVID-19 Crisis Continues
Supplying proper protective equipment to treat patients during the battle against coronavirus, like N-95 masks, has been the focus of Justin Sink, an engineer at ExxonMobil. While extremely effective, to ensure the best protection, the masks are single use. With more than two million patients currently infected across the world, and the demand skyrocketing, there simply aren’t enough masks on hand at the current time.
“The masks are made of a material that Exxon invented in the 1970s. It looks and feels like rigid cloth, but it’s actually a melt-blown polymer that enables air to flow in and out easily. What most people don’t know is that before the fabric is shaped into masks, it’s given an electrostatic charge. That charge is what captures viruses or bacteria,” Sink said.
To trap the COVID-19 virus before it infects others, especially critical care physicians, nurses, and support staff, PPE gear of the highest quality must be available, and with so many governments across the world and medical workers clamoring for such gear—not to mention the broader public’s demand as well—a mask shortage quickly developed in the early weeks of the virus’ outbreak.
“Over time and with extended use and contamination, that charge diminishes and, along with it, the protective ability of the mask. So, these masks often have to be thrown away after a single use. And the problem is there’s only so much of the fabric being produced around the world,” Sink added.
ExxonMobil spokesman Todd Spitler told Western Wire the company was excited to work with organizations like the Global Center for Medical Innovation. Organizations and companies are “ramping up supply chains and manufacturing PPE at unprecedented levels in response to this medical challenge,” he wrote.
“ExxonMobil produces IPA [isopropyl alcohol] at the world’s largest IPA unit, located within the Baton Rouge Chemical Plant. We are maximizing production to ensure continuity in supply to our customers to meet our customer and societal needs in these critical end-uses,” Spitler added.
ExxonMobil’s mobilization comes amidst record demand for IPA related products.
“To combat the spread of the COVID-19 virus, there has been a significant increase in demand for IPA for use in medical, health, and pharmaceutical applications including hand sanitizer, medical wipes, and rubbing alcohol,” he continued.
The company has prioritized “our IPA supply to meet governmental requests that we’ve received (directly or indirectly) and our customers serving critical health, medical, and sanitization end-uses (e.g. hospitals and critical infrastructure). These include state governments, the TSA [Transportation Safety Administration] and US military,” Spitler concluded.
Another partnership allows ExxonMobil to deliver IPA products directly to TSA suppliers, enabling quicker distribution.
“ExxonMobil provided thousands of gallons of isopropyl alcohol (IPA) to Univar Solutions, a key ingredient in many disinfectant and sanitizer products. Univar Solutions blended, packaged and delivered the urgently needed products to a TSA warehouse location for further distribution to domestic airports. This helps TSA maintain workplace safety in spite of COVID-19 related shortages of personal protective equipment (PPE) and cleaning solvents,” a Univar statement said.
Mark Fisher, president of Univar USA and Canada, said, “With this type of greater societal impact, we’re working closely with suppliers, customers, and the necessary government authorities to manage shipments and help minimize disruptions to ensure safe, reliable chemicals and ingredients supply for customers across the world.”
Combining global production capabilities with a global supply chain network is key to bringing the two companies together to deliver critical resources during the COVID-19 crisis.
“We are proud to join with Univar Solutions to expedite the delivery of isopropyl alcohol to TSA, helping to ensure workplace safety for their security personnel in airports across the country,” said Loic Vivier, senior vice president, ExxonMobil Chemical Company. “ExxonMobil is committed to doing our part to support the COVID-19 response effort.”
R&D Versus Exponential Growth
While ramping up added production takes time, the virus has spread faster than normal logistical planning, according to Sink.
“With the N95 mask, the technology that’s required to produce each unit is quite complex. It’s difficult to build a new supply chain for N95 masks in a week – it usually takes months. And the virus spreads exponentially,” he explained.
Last week, ExxonMobil revealed ramped-up production of specialized materials for use in medical masks and gowns.
“The company has increased its capability to manufacture specialized polypropylene, used in medical masks and gowns, by about 1,000 tonnes per month, which is enough to enable production of up to 200 million medical masks or 20 million gowns,” the company announced.
In addition, monthly production of isopropyl alcohol, the key ingredient in disinfectants and sought-after hand sanitizers, increased by 3,000 tons. That is the equivalent of 50 million 4-ounce bottles.
“We’re increasing our manufacturing capabilities to meet this critical need to help keep doctors, nurses and first responders healthy and safe,” said Karen McKee, president of ExxonMobil Chemical Company. “Our team has been working around the clock, applying our engineering and technical know-how and working with our customers to make this happen. We’re committed to doing our part to support the global response to the COVID-19 pandemic.”
Exxon’s facility in Baytown, Texas will manufacture the additional polypropylene, while the Baton Rouge facility will produce the isopropyl alcohol.
The global threat from the virus has strained the supply chain, with production in respective areas being used locally, rather than being shipped to other markets across the world.
“For context, we still produce the raw materials for the fabric at our Baytown, Texas, production facility, which is currently working at maximum capacity. But most of the N95 microfiber is manufactured in Asia, and they need masks there as much as we need them here. So, the supply chain is stretched too thin, meaning mask material that’s made in Asia is staying in Asia right now,” Sink said.
Companies like ExxonMobil are well positioned within the supply chain, however, according to Sink. Innovation and adaptation, along with the deep knowledge of materials science itself, puts new applications for currently existing materials within reach for PPE masks.
Sink described adapting “dust-repelling fabric for speakers for sound systems” that could be given a charge similar to regular N95 masks, and coordinating with North Carolina State University for production. Another adaptation, using replaceable filter cartridges, could be brought in to pinch-hit for N95 masks, with the composite rubber facemask being cleanable and reusable, while the cartridges themselves would be disposable, allowing for less intensive materials use and more personalized protection.
Normal testing procedures have been scrapped in favor of rapid 3D printing for prototyping, along with teaming up with other governmental agencies and companies to bring a workable solution to market rapidly.
“Once the mold is built in the shape of the mask, thousands of them can be produced per hour. We’re collaborating with NASA [National Aeronautics and Space Administration, the Georgia Tech Research Institute, GE, Delta Airlines, the National Organization for Technology Exploration and Delivery, Boeing and the U.S. Army Futures Command to decide which materials can be scaled up,” Sink said.
Companies and agencies will stay in their lane, pouring their respective expertise into the process “make sure we get this done and protect the people on the front lines, who are protecting all of us.”
“So, for example, we at ExxonMobil know materials science and supply chains, but we don’t know the medical community. The team at the Global Center for Medical Innovation, however, does – so they’re the ones working closely with doctors to make sure the mask is up to standard. That team is also coordinating with the FDA [Food and Drug Administration] for quick approval,” Sink continued.
Sink said that collaboration led to the shipping of face shields just last week.
Bringing Boeing online to produce face shields, with Army Futures Command and NASA assisting in prototyping and design, Sink said a single production line can create 10,000 shields per hour. With demand in the millions, that kind of output will put a significant dent in the demand backlog across the globe, while not cannibalizing current production elsewhere.
With ExxonMobil’s assistance, the public-private partnership is working at breakneck speed to rally, just as this country rallied to defeat another common enemy in World War II.
“What’s key to understand, though, is that we’re not replacing supply from the other manufacturers of masks. We’re adding to it. In just a couple of weeks, we’ll have created an entirely different production method and supply chain that doesn’t have the same bottlenecks that exist now. It’s like the mobilization of the war effort in the 1940s: Everybody is pitching in to make this work,” Sink said.