Toward Resilience: Helping Companies and Faculty Develop Innovations Targeting COVID-19 and Healthy Environments

2020 was a challenging year. The world has faced unprecedented challenges, requiring governments, communities, businesses, schools, and families to quickly re-think their approach to health and safety in the built environment. There has never been a more crucial time for research and entrepreneurship to promote healthy buildings and urban environments – a key focus of SyracuseCoE’s historic mission. From the beginning of the pandemic, it was clear that the Center had an opportunity to play a vital role in developing COVID-19 resilience in the built environment.

Critical Communications

As our partners and faculty pivoted in response to the pandemic, so did SyracuseCoE. Leadership and staff looked for ways to bolster COVID-related research and commercialization activities by stakeholders. When the pandemic first began to unfold, SyracuseCoE assumed responsibility for wide dissemination of important resources and research-based information from its global community of stakeholders to the wider public. Early on, the Center shared funding opportunities and the latest guidance to help businesses navigate a safe re-opening process. As it became clear that indoor air quality and aerosol spread was critical to the transmission of the virus, SyracuseCoE used its voice to promote essential and informed discourse designed to advance a more COVID-resilient built environment. Further, we frequently broadcast the most up-to-date findings while also highlighting key leadership events with “trusted experts” from a community of world-class researchers specializing in topics related to indoor environmental quality.

Funding for COVID Related Innovations

SyracuseCoE continues to work closely with industry partners to support their efforts to develop technologies that target COVID-19, leveraging expertise from Syracuse University researchers and other faculty, generating new applications for existing products and transforming manufacturing operations to produce much needed supplies for frontline workers. For the Fall 2020 round of the SyracuseCoE Innovation Fund, an award by and for SyracuseCoE Partners, all proposals were required to address pandemic-related issues. In October, SyracuseCoE awarded four Partner companies $10,000 each for their COVID-related projects: Acumen Detection, Air Innovations, Elizion Tech, and M3 Innovations. Acumen will be working with SyracuseCoE researchers to develop a device to test for COVID-19 in the air. This could allow schools, offices, and other gathering places to detect if someone spreading COVID-19 has infected a room. Further, Acumen has also contributed to the Syracuse University wastewater testing project and has been manufacturing COVID-19 diagnostic tests since March. Air Innovations is enhancing their HEPAirX ventilating air purifier and HVAC unit to reduce disease transmission through UV-C light. It will also have the ability to turn any enclosed space into a negative pressure room. Elizion Tech will produce medical grade bio-based thermoplastics to be used in manufacturing sustainable, biodegradable, and recyclable filtration materials for personal protective equipment. M3 Innovations is developing ultraviolet options for lighting for sport venues that will combine high quality illumination and disinfect them when unoccupied.

Research for Resiliency

In an effort to make key findings from the Center’s researchers more accessible to a broader audience, we launched the SyracuseCoE Research Brief Series. The series started in an effort to quickly disseminate pertinent research that can inform reopening plans for schools and businesses. The first research brief from SyracuseCoE interim executive director Eric A. Schiff shows the efficacy of mask-wearing and ventilation in reducing the risk of transmission in classrooms. The second brief gives an overview of how displacement ventilation and semi-open partitions can be used as a defense strategy against airborne diseases. Since these briefs have been available, they have been viewed thousands of times and there has been a 29% increase in new visitors to the website. This brief series allows SyracuseCoE to highlight the work of our researchers, spark discourse with other top scientists, and advance scholarship and expertise in these critical areas of study.

One such SyracuseCoE researcher is Syracuse University Engineering professor and indoor air quality expert Jianshun “Jensen” Zhang. Zhang was among the 239 global scientists who signed an open letter urging the World Health Organization to formally acknowledge that the virus can be spread through aerosol droplets. While contributing to both SyracuseCoE forums and research briefs, Zhang has also been promoting the importance of ventilation in controlling virus spread indoors. In an editorial for the journal “Science and Technology and Built Environment,” Zhang outlined a three-step plan for reducing the risk of infection indoors. He has also contributed to The Wall Street Journal, Architectural Digest and other media outlets.

Zhang isn’t the only SyracuseCoE researcher trying to understand COVID-19 in the built environment. The most recent research brief explores SyracuseCoE Faculty Fellow Teng Zeng’s study on wastewater testing for COVID-19 and pharmaceutical drugs. Zeng received funding from the 2020 SyracuseCoE Faculty Fellows Program to research the relationship between pharmaceuticals found in Central New York sewer sheds and increased rates of COVID-19. Joining Syracuse University’s David Larsen’s team of researchers conducting wastewater sampling on campus, Zeng wanted to see if there was a connection between drug use and COVID-19 prevalence. After 4 months of sampling, Zeng found that sewer systems with a higher detection for pharmaceuticals also have a higher detection rate for the RNA associated with SARS-CoV-2. The association means substance detection in wastewater systems may be a tool for predicting COVID-19 hotspots and could help inform local or regional COVID-19 prevention plans.

Thought Leadership Events

The coronavirus halted in-person events in 2020, so the SyracuseCoE Research & Technology Forums made a digital debut in a new, all-virtual format. These forums bring partners and faculty together to present research and exchange dialogue on innovative products and technologies. So far, two forums have been focused on helping students and teachers return safely to classrooms by sharing the latest COVID-19 risk-reduction tactics, such as increased ventilation, air purifiers, and masking. Looking forward, SyracuseCoE plans to offer additional digital round tables, given the increased accessibility and attendance of the online format. Recordings of forums have also been made available through a new SyracuseCoE podcast.

SyracuseCoE’s mission is to develop innovations in environmental and energy technologies that promote sustainable well-being in built and urban environments. Syracuse University and the Central New York Region has established strengths and expertise in critical COVID-related topics such as indoor air quality and wastewater resources. Looking ahead into a post-pandemic world, SyracuseCoE will continue to be a hub for researchers and companies to drive innovation and create a more resilient built environment.