School of Engineering faculty member develops personal protective equipment for local community coronavirus front-liners

UAB’s Brian Pillay utilizes resources to develop PPE for local community employees.
Written by: Grant Martin
Media contact: Yvonne Taunton


Environmental head shot of Dr. Selvum "Brian" Pillay, PhD (Professor/Chairman, Materials Science and Engineering) standing outside, 2018.UAB’s Brian Pillay utilizes resources to develop PPE for local community employees. As director of the Materials Processing and Applications Development research facility at the University of Alabama at Birmingham, Selvum “Brian” Pillay, Ph.D., has spent years with companies to develop materials that can be manufactured on a large scale.

Since the COVID-19 pandemic effectively shut down the MPAD and similar hands-on research facilities, Pillay and his family have started a home-based manufacturing operation on a decidedly smaller scale — albeit one that meets a major need in their community. Over the past month, the Pillays have distributed more than 400 face masks they created in their home using household sewing machines and filter materials donated by a local company. 

“When the extent of the COVID-19 pandemic became apparent, there was a lot of attention on personal protective equipment for health care workers; but the rest of us were told initially to practice social distancing and avoid going out in public as much as possible,” Pillay said. “I saw pretty quickly that there were a lot of people in my own community who didn’t have that option.”

Every day, Pillay encountered people in his community such as garbage collectors, mail carriers and grocery store workers — people who were providing those “essential services” that could not be sidelined by the pandemic. It was with those people in mind that Pillay purchased three sewing machines, cotton fabric, elastic bands and ties and, together with his family, set to work making masks — with an innovative twist.

“We had a supply of non-woven spun nylon at the MPAD that was left over from a previous collaboration with a company called Ascend Performance Materials,” Pillay said. “I contacted Albert Ortega from Ascend, and he shipped 14 rolls of the material to help with the project. We used that to create a filter than can be inserted into the traditional cotton mask.”

Pillay took a template from the internet and modified it to accommodate the filter. Then he and his family began sewing the masks and distributing them to anyone who expressed a need, including the UAB Facilities Office, which requested 30 masks for its essential workers. In addition to the people Pillay encountered providing everyday services, he says he also connected with a Facebook group to distribute the masks more widely. At peak production, his family was making around 50 masks per day.  

The masks are constructed in such a way that they can be reused many times.

“The cotton can be washed and reused,” Pillay said. “Since the filter is non-woven material, it can’t be washed, but it can be sterilized using Lysol or some other disinfectant.”

Even though many hospitals have strict standards that allow them to accept only commercially manufactured personal protective equipment, Pillay says they have passed masks along to health care workers on an individual basis.

In recent weeks, the Centers for Disease Control began advising citizens to wear masks any time they are out in public, which has increased demand for the masks even more. However, the Pillay operation stalled when they ran out of cotton material.

“We have plenty of filter material, and we are willing to continue operations when more cotton fabric becomes available,” Pillay said. “In the grand scheme of things, 400 masks is not going to meet the needs of a worldwide pandemic; but it was one way my family could provide a service to the people in our community. I think that’s something you are seeing a lot. People look at what they have available and think of ways they can use their resources to help others. That’s how we are going to get through this.”