Jefferson Trust Grant Funds Cross-Disciplinary Undergraduate Student Collaboration

Updated July 14, 2020

Throughout February 2020, COVID-19 moved stealthily within U.S. communities, its true scope still unknown to most people. At the time, Gaurav “Gino” Giri, an assistant professor of chemical engineering at the University of Virginia, and Balashankar Mulloth, assistant professor of public policy in UVA’s Frank Batten School of Leadership and Public Policy, were planning to implement funding from the Jefferson Trust to expand an existing project close to their hearts. By the end of March, they found themselves in the fight against the worldwide pandemic.

It just so happens the product they were already developing through Hava Inc., a nonprofit entrepreneurial venture they co-founded, is a defense against another quiet killer: air pollution. The World Health Organization has called air pollution “a silent public health emergency.” It affects more than 90% of Earth’s population, many of them in developing countries.

Giri and Mulloth had received $100,000 from the Jefferson Trust for their project, “Guiding Student Research to Solve Global Problems in Air Pollution.” The project involves students from a mix of majors collaborating with faculty and each other, gaining familiarity with air-filtration technologies and their impact on people, using Hava Inc. as a vehicle. The company was created to make personal air filtration products — such as face masks, scarves and window curtains — that can be tailored to meet the needs and cultural preferences of users.

“One of the students’ objectives will be discovering how we need to design products so that the people we are trying to sell to will choose to use them,” Giri said.

Giri developed the technology for Hava products in his UVA Engineering lab, where he and his students fabricate and test chemical compounds called metal organic frameworks. Applied in a solution to textiles such as cotton, metal organic frameworks’ physical and chemical properties allow the material to capture fine particulate matter, a harmful air pollutant, much more effectively than plain fabric.

Giri’s team continues to experiment with metal organic framework and fabric combinations to improve air filtration efficacy while maintaining free airflow. They are testing for capacity to filter airborne particles greater than .3 micrometers, about the size of the smallest particles of dust. They have achieved 50% to 70% efficiency using cotton fabrics. While N95 masks meet the accepted standard of 95%, commonly used fabric masks are only 5% to 20% effective, Giri said.

As the pandemic escalated in March, it delayed the implementation of the Jefferson Trust-funded project, but it also created new urgency for Giri and Mulloth to move into production. They have begun to collaborate with manufacturing partners to speed the process. Because the metal organic framework solutions are fast, inexpensive and safe for the environment to make, manufacturing can be scaled up quickly.

“Literally, you can take a piece of cotton at 5% efficiency, dip it in our material and get to 50% efficiency,” Giri said. “We were thinking of having to wait until we hit 95%, but with the shortage of masks, even 50% is useful for most people.”

In the long term, the undergraduate project will offer students opportunities for hands-on laboratory, marketing or social science research and practical experience across disciplines, from engineering to business to public health policy. For now, a small number of students will begin exploring the marketing and public health components, in a world much changed by COVID-19.

“This is a complex engineering, social and cultural problem,” Giri said. “Our undergraduates are already very good at answering research questions in their majors. As a multidisciplinary team, the students will uncover the bigger-picture context and help each other find the best solution.”

Fourth-year grad student Luke Huelsenbeck (left) has worked on the Hava project with assistant professor of chemical engineering Gino Giri for about two years.

Fourth-year Ph.D. student Luke Huelsenbeck (left) has worked on the Hava Inc. air filtration project with UVA assistant professor of chemical engineering Gino Giri (right) for about two years.