MTU Engineers Build Mobile Unit to Clean COVID-19 PPE

shipping container in a parking lot
shipping container in a parking lot
Michigan Tech and Therma-Tron-X, Inc. are building prototypes that use heat to clean personal protective equipment.

A refrigerated shipping container. Commercial-grade baking sheets. A modified oven. These are the key pieces of a prototype that uses heat to sanitize personal protection equipment (PPE).

The idea is simple: Disinfect PPE at temperatures hot enough to break up coronaviruses and do so in a big, moveable oven that can be quickly made with local, off-the-shelf parts that are easy to get and put together. The unit can clean 5,000 to 10,000 PPE units every two hours and can run continuously. 

The design is streamlined: Use a thick-walled shipping container with the refrigeration unit swapped for a heating unit run on an electric generator, then line it with stainless steel racks and trays holding PPE, and heat it up to 140-170 degrees Fahrenheit.

The manufacturing is built on community: The parts are all on hand in commercial bakeries, restaurants, HVAC shops, shipping yards and universities — and could be quickly delivered to hospital and clinic loading docks.

An engineering team from Michigan Technological University tested the prototype in a campus parking lot alongside local company Aire Care. They call it the Mobile Thermal Utility (MTU) Sanitizer. The prototype is now heading downstate for further validation testing. The World Health Organization and U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommend heat-soaking to eliminate coronaviruses like the one that causes COVID-19. The CDC offers guidelines on temperature ranges and time for effectiveness.

inside of a shipping container lined with reflective panels
electrical side of MTU Sanitizer shipping container
The "hot" side of the MTU Sanitizer conducts and reflects heat to clean PPE; the “cold” side houses the electrical work to control the shipping container’s environment. Credit: Andrew Barnard

"If Houghton, Michigan, can find 25 racks, the right kind of shipping container, a heating unit and the experts to put a prototype all together in a couple days, then this could be deployed in any city in our nation,” said Dan Barnard, co-inventor of the design along with his wife Amy, a biomedical engineer by training. Dan’s cousin, Andrew Barnard, is a mechanical engineer at Michigan Tech and the director of the Great Lakes Research Center.

“Our goal is to make a massively available and scalable mobile sanitation unit for hospital PPE. We’ve seen DIY versions using food dehydrators and ovens; we’re making it bigger, but still transportable,” Andrew Barnard said. “PPE shortages are expected to last weeks to months and we want to do something about that now."

The team includes Amy Barnard’s father, Brad Andreae, owner of an industrial finishing system and water and wastewater treatment and heat processing equipment manufacturer, Therma-Tron-X, Inc., who offered insight on how to make the heating unit work, and thermodynamics expert Jeffrey Allen, John F. and Joan M. Calder Professor in Mechanical Engineering at Michigan Tech.  

PPE includes lab coats, gowns, N95 masks, face shields, sleeves and other protective garments that help prevent the spread of disease and keep health care workers and lab technicians safe. In addition to disinfecting large amounts of PPE, upwards of 60,000 PPE units or more each day, the MTU Sanitizer can clean large items like gurneys, beds, firefighter gear and other contaminated materials that are hard to clean using chemicals or smaller ovens. 

The team received $32,800 in seed funding from the College of Engineering and is working with local Sen. Ed McBroom, Rep. Greg Markkanen and Sen. Adam Hollier of Detroit. InvestUPhas been an indispensable partner in locating resources, helping build collaborations and connecting the Upper Peninsula resources with the affected regions downstate. 

“Detroit and the UP have a lot in common when we talk about internet, health issues and affordable energy. We face many similar challenges from different perspectives,” said Hollier. “The MTU Sanitizer is a game changer. The UP and Michigan Tech brought their expertise to bear so that our health care workers, home care workers and first responders can do their work safely. These engineers saw a problem and got to work to fix it — and I’m grateful for that.”

Hollier, who is a first lieutenant in the Army Reserve, helped coordinate with the National Guard to get the MTU Sanitizer to southeast Michigan and is working with local hospitals to get it into service as quickly as possible.  

“I think this is another opportunity for the National Guard to change its legacy in Detroit from 1967 and respond to people’s needs today and make a difference in this pandemic,” Hollier said, adding that he is working with Michigan Tech and the Attorney General’s Office to secure Emergency Use Authorization and move the prototype through FDA certification to make the design and licensing widely available to communities and health care facilities across the country.  

"It's important that we get this sanitation unit approved and in operation as soon as possible," McBroom said. "The creativity and thoughtfulness of this engineering team at Michigan Tech in the Upper Peninsula to create a unit that can travel to hard-hit areas like Detroit is fantastic and worth celebrating. I will always remember the people like this team and my colleague Sen. Hollier who have relentlessly put their ingenuity and hard work to the test to help win this battle and protect our workers on the frontlines."

“As an alumni, this is an important collaboration between local groups, the state and the university. This is a way to bring everyone to the table and come up with solutions to combat this crisis,” said Markkanen. “It’s what the governor has been calling for and Michigan Tech is delivering.”

Andrew Barnard agrees that time is of the essence. 

“We want to get this design out there as quickly as possible,” he said. “And we want to make sure it’s done right.”

Please direct all inquiries about the mobile PPE sanitation unit to

Michigan Technological University is a public research university founded in 1885 in Houghton, Michigan, and is home to more than 7,000 students from 55 countries around the world. Consistently ranked among the best universities in the country for return on investment, Michigan’s flagship technological university offers more than 120 undergraduate and graduate degree programs in science and technology, engineering, computing, forestry, business and economics, health professions, humanities, mathematics, social sciences, and the arts. The rural campus is situated just miles from Lake Superior in Michigan's Upper Peninsula, offering year-round opportunities for outdoor adventure.