Indigenous researcher paves road to success with PPE innovation

Shannon Kilmartin-Lynch, a proud Taungurung man from Mansfield in Victoria, Australia is a driving force behind an innovation at RMIT University to use disposable personal protective equipment (PPE) to make concrete stronger.

The PhD scholar and Vice-Chancellor’s Indigenous Pre-Doctoral Research Fellow at RMIT is part of the University’s School of Engineering team that is the first to investigate the feasibility of recycling three key types of PPE – isolation gowns, face masks and rubber gloves – into concrete.

Kilmartin-Lynch says the research brought a circular economy approach to the challenge of dealing with healthcare waste. Since the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, an estimated 54,000 tonnes of PPE waste has been produced on average globally each day. About 129 billion disposable face masks are used and discarded around the world every month.

“Everyone sees face masks and other PPE littering the streets,” says Kilmartin-Lynch, who is first author on three separate peer-reviewed research papers.

“As engineers and researchers walking through the streets, we decided to sit down and think of a way to address this problem and that’s what inspired us to find this innovative way to reduce pandemic-generated waste by using it in civil engineering applications.

“Our research found that incorporating the right amount of shredded PPE could improve the strength and durability of concrete.”

Kilmartin-Lynch says we urgently need smart solutions for the ever-growing pile of Covid-19 generated waste.

“This challenge will remain even after the pandemic is over,” he says.

Kilmartin-Lynch completed a Bachelor of Engineering (Civil and Infrastructure) at RMIT before applying for the Vice-Chancellor’s Indigenous Pre-Doctoral Research Fellowship.

“That’s how I got into research and where I am now,” he said.

“I’m passionate about concrete – I think about it most of the time. I’m also passionate about sustainability and how we can care for Country, making sure that waste is being put to other uses instead of going to landfill.”

Kilmartin-Lynch wants to show Indigenous youth who have an interest in STEM fields that there are great opportunities available.

“The RMIT Indigenous Pre-Doctoral Research Fellowship provides Indigenous people early career opportunities in research. If you’re curious about the world and want to make a real difference, then you should definitely think about applying for the 2023 program, which is open now for registrations,” he says.

Kilmartin-Lynch is excited that the RMIT team is planning to use their research findings in a field project with industry partner Casafico Pty Ltd.

Published in the journals ‘Case Studies in Construction Materials’, ‘Science of the Total Environment’ and ‘Journal of Cleaner Production’, the studies by RMIT School of Engineering researchers demonstrate the potential for PPE to be used as reinforcement materials in structural concrete.

The studies found shredded PPE could increase the strength of concrete by up to 22% and improve resistance to cracking.

In three separate feasibility studies, disposable face masks, rubber gloves and isolation gowns were first shredded then incorporated into concrete at various volumes, between 0.1% and 0.25%.

The next step for the research is to evaluate the potential for mixing the PPE streams, develop practical implementation strategies and work towards field trials.

The team is keen to collaborate with the healthcare and construction industries to further develop the research.