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News Octogenarian inventor joins the fight against COVID-19

A retired engineer from Staffordshire has designed two new methods of sterilising PPE so that it may be safely reused by hospital staff

Derek Wardle recently completed a PhD at Staffordshire University
Image: Derek Wardle recently completed a PhD at Staffordshire University

As soon as coronavirus began and I heard they were using gowns, aprons and visors just the once then throwing them away I thought why don’t I, as a volunteer, try and do something about it.

Derek Wardle

82-year-old Derek Wardle, who has vowed he will never retire, recently completed a PhD at Staffordshire University. This marked a hattrick of degrees for the grandfather who also studied Business in 1992 and an MSc Engineering in 2009 at the University.

Derek, from Trentham in Stoke-on-Trent, said: “I thoroughly enjoyed doing the PhD - it opened up a whole new world. If you have the chance, at any age, and you’ve got ambition to get a degree, then come to Staffs University.”

Derek is a perpetual inventor and during his PhD he designed a new type of electrostatic precipitator (ESP) – a filtration device which captures harmful particulates from the air before releasing the cleaner air back into the atmosphere.

Last year, Derek decided to hit back at the pandemic and spent much of his time investigating possible ways of sterilising PPE so that it may be reused at least once more. With limited access to facilities during the lockdown, he conducted experiments at home using household items including his wheelie bin and an old tumble dryer! His initial thought was to treat COVID-19 as though it was just another form of pollution which could be captured, contained then destroyed.

He explained: “As soon as coronavirus began and I heard they were using gowns, aprons and visors just the once then throwing them away I thought why don’t I, as a volunteer, try and do something about it.

“Through my work on air conditioning units, I knew the effectiveness of ultraviolet light and ozone in killing bacteria and explored this as a way to destroy coronavirus on PPE in an enclosed space.”

By using a particular wavelength of UV, Derek was able to generate the gas ozone (O3) which could be used to kill traces of the COVID-19 virus before quickly dissipating.

Unable to find a sealable cabinet due to coronavirus restrictions, Derek used his wheelie bin and UV lights to conduct experiments to give him proof of concept. This showed that it is possible to sterilise rigid PPE, such as visors, if stacked in an ozonated enclosure. After lockdown, the test runs were successfully repeated in the laboratory using a purpose-built cabinet.

Derek used the same method to look into sterilising PPE clothing such as gowns, aprons and masks. He commented: “It is difficult for ozone to reach between fibres of stacked cloth but using a domestic tumble dryer was successful in exposing the fibres of the clothing to ozone during tumbling. Tests done in the laboratory later proved that ozone concentrations were sufficient to kill bacteria and destroy viruses.”

Derek’s ambition is to make these methods widely available to sterilise PPE for NHS staff and he is now hoping to work with an independent lab on further testing.

He added: “As an engineer it would be irresponsible of me to assume complete success at this stage. Further tests need to be done by an independent laboratory to ensure the efficacy of the process. In the meantime, nothing more can be done without approved efficacy so hospitals and care homes continue to discard PPE after single use.”

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