Talk of the Bay from KSQD
Talk of the Bay from KSQD
Local startup shifts from fuel to masks

(Photo by LiPo Ching)

In this piece, producer Ashleigh Papp explores the conversion of an alternative fuel startup company into a mask-making factory.

I’m Ashleigh Papp for KSQD with a story about being flexible during the COVID-19 pandemic.


It’s five o’clock and Rob MCGinnis of Prometheus Fuels is firing up his cutting machine.

That’s the sound of a water jet cutter. And it’s a massive machine that can snip through a lot of different materials.

“It actually cuts through up to six inches of steel, I believe, using high pressure water. It’s similar to a laser cutter, but a laser cutter is limited in the materials it can cut. Whereas a laser can cut metals, plastic, almost anything. And it’s really versatile, you essentially just load in the program of the pattern you want and it will pretty much cut any material into the pattern you want.”

When McGinnis heard about the shortage of personal protective gear for frontline workers, he made a quick decision; why not make them here?

“It was early March and we’d been seeing what was happening in China. And then we started seeing reports of the showing up in the cities and … I suddenly realized that people weren’t getting access to PPE in a smooth, essentially coordinated way. And you know, after your first like, how could that be? You realize that well, okay, I mean for at least the next month or two, everyone’s gonna have to scramble to try and help out and, and I bet there’s some way we can help out what could I make?”

Prometheus Fuels setup shop in Santa Cruz in 2019, and they’re focused on making a clean fuel for the future. Along their production line, they were able to easily convert that water jet cutter into a PPE-producing machine.

Personal protective equipment, or PPE, is important because it acts as a physical barrier between two people. From face masks to face shields, this equipment is now required to be worn by all healthcare professionals when interacting with patients who may be infected with the virus that causes COVID-19.

But as COVID-19 sweeps through the world, it’s stressing our healthcare system resources. And due to inadequate reserve supplies and the lack of production worldwide, there’s a shortage of PPE right now. According to the US Center for Disease Control, this is causing a tremendous challenge to our healthcare system[1].

After a bit of research, McGinnis realized that one particular type of PPE was especially straightforward to produce.

“The three ingredients for making a face shield are a sheet of plastic, which has been cut to the proper shape made out of a plastic PET, which is polyester terephthalate, this is the same plastic we use for medical face shields normally and also for plastic bottles. And then you also need a strip of foam with an adhesive on the back that becomes the sort of the cushion for your forehead. And you need a strip of plastic to hold it onto your head and then you just sort of staple that together. Pretty simple.”

In a matter of days, McGinnis had ordered the supplies, re-programmed their machinery, and produced Prometheus Fuels’ first batch of face shields. The shipment was coordinated through the same recipe-providing website, which directed the PPE to where it was needed most — a COVID-only hospital based in Brooklyn, New York.

In addition to the pattern and materials needed to make the face shield, that website MGinnis found also came with a recommended price tag to charge for each shield.

“The University of Wisconsin face shield project said we should charge $3 per face shield in order to cover the cost of materials, so you can keep going. And so we decided to do that, we’ve been asking people to pay the $3 per shield. But in some cases people didn’t really have it or didn’t have a way to pay, so in those cases we donated it.”

And because Prometheus is a start-up, complete with a board of financial investors, on their main product — a machine that converts air and water into clean gasoline — has continued alongside PPE production.

As of Thursday April 30th, Prometheus Fuels has sent over 2500 face shields to a dozen cities across the country, including a few shipments to local facilities. And according to McGinnis, they’ll keep building valuable PPE for as long as they possibly can.

“We’ve got enough materials for thousands more, so we’ll make that many and if we can’t get any more materials then we’ll have to say well, that’s the best we could do. But already we’ve really helped some people that had nothing, so we’ve already made a huge impact.”

I’m Ashleigh Papp, a science reporter with KSQD. During this crazy time, don’t forget to keep yourself healthy and stay positive.