Five Ryerson researchers secure NSERC grants for COVID-19 projects 

May 21, 2020 | TorontoMet Today

Top row from left: Professors Naimul Khan, Xiao-Ping (Steven) Zhang and Costin Antonescu.
Bottom row from left: Professors Kazem Fayazbakhsh and Fengfeng (Jeff) Xi.

Five Ryerson University researchers have secured funding from the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC) to support collaborative projects with industrial partners that will address critical issues related to COVID-19.

NSERC Alliance COVID-19 Grants have been awarded to professors Kazem Fayazbakhsh, Fengfeng (Jeff) Xi, Xiao-Ping (Steven) Zhang and Naimul Khan of the Faculty of Engineering and Architectural Science, and professor Costin Antonescu of the Faculty of Science.

Their projects will develop new tools, treatments and techniques to tackle COVID-19, including reusable face masks, a robotic disinfectant device, a screening method that harnesses artificial intelligence (AI), contact tracing wristbands, and an ultrasound and microbubble treatment.

“Ryerson researchers have responded rapidly to the evolving COVID-19 pandemic with innovative solutions that can be applied to the most urgent, practical issues associated with the disease,” said Steven N. Liss, vice-president, research and innovation at Ryerson.

“Across the university, our researchers are showing exceptional commitment and creativity as they join worldwide efforts to tackle COVID-19. I congratulate professors Fayazbakhsh, Xi, Zhang, Khan and Antonescu on securing this valuable funding to support their industrial partnerships, and I thank all our faculty members for their outstanding response to this complex, global crisis.”

Professor Fayazbakhsh and his team are collaborating with APC Filtration Inc. to design, manufacture and certify reusable N95 face masks that are suitable for large-volume production. They will also explore the impact of hospitals’ current sterilization processes on the mask’s structure. The researchers hope to address personal protective equipment (PPE) shortages as well as waste management challenges. 

In response to the need to disinfect public places without exposing workers to the virus or harmful substances, a team led by professor Xi is working with the company Engineering Services Inc. on a design for a disinfecting robot and exploring the use of either blue light or heated air to sanitize target areas. 

Professor Zhang is leading a project to develop a COVID-19 screening method that can tell if a person may have the disease based on the sound of their breathing. In collaboration with AltumView Systems Inc., the researchers will create a system that uses microphones and an AI algorithm to analyze respiration patterns. The rapid method will be able to screen large numbers of people.

Contact tracing is being used by governments to identify people who may have come in contact with the virus. These individuals are then asked to self-quarantine, but professor Khan says it can be difficult to ensure that people stay at home. To deter people from breaking quarantine, professor Khan and Dapasoft Inc. are working on a non-detachable wristband that is paired with a smartphone. An alarm is triggered if a person breaks quarantine, and the devices can also be used to help the user to detect symptoms, through sensors and self-reporting. AI will be used to analyze the effectiveness of the system.

To help with the treatment of COVID-19, professor Antonescu and MD Precision Inc. are investigating whether a method known as ultrasound with microbubbles (USMB) can be applied to the disease. Professor Antonescu and his research team will determine whether the technique, which involves injecting microbubbles into the body and then oscillating them with ultrasound, can impede the entry of the virus into human cells, and improve cells’ uptake of antiviral drugs.