Covid-19 Vaccine Makers Turn to Microchip Tech to Beat Glass Shortages

Weikart’s team was tasked with figuring out how to make a plastic container that didn’t have these problems. He found the answer in plasma. You know, that fourth state of matter, the one that comes after solid, liquid, and gas. Plasma is basically a partially ionized gas, meaning its molecules have been excited to such a degree that electrons escape their orbits. Glowing ensues. But more importantly, the process of turning a gas into a plasma can be harnessed to lay down or strip layers off of materials one atom at a time. This is how the electronics industry makes nearly all integrated circuits, and it’s the technology that drove their miniaturization. Those microprocessor chips inside your phone and your computer? Their many layers of materials were deposited or etched away by plasma-based processes.

Using similar techniques, Weikart’s team engineered a way to suck all the air out of plastic containers—like a vial, syringe, or another shape—and replace it with silicon dioxide gas. Then, at a very low pressure, they apply an electromagnetic field across the container, which converts the gas into a plasma. As their electrons kick off, the silica and oxygen molecules become very reactive and attach to the polymer surface. There they stick. The result is a layer of pure silica, otherwise known as glass. “An oxygen molecule is a tiny substance, so in order to keep it out you need a really, really dense barrier,” says Weikart. “That’s why we put down this very dense form of silica.”

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The silica layer stretches 20 to 50 nanometers across. It’s sandwiched between an adhesion layer, which helps it stick to the plastic, and a sheet of silica mixed with carbon to protect the glass layer from dissolving into the contents of the container. All together, the plasma-deposited coating measures less than half a micron thick—about 1/10th the diameter of a red blood cell, and 1/150th the width of a human hair.

Prior to the pandemic, SiO2 was making about 14 million of these 10-millimeter glass-coated plastic vials per year for pharmaceutical clients. But it had yet to break into the vaccine market. Since the Barda contract was signed, the company has hired 123 additional employees and is now on track to produce 40 million vials annually, according to SiO2’s chief business officer, Lawrence Ganti. He expects they will hire at least 100 more people as they ramp up to meet the contract’s additional demands, which include scaling to 120 million vials by November.

Ganti says SiO2 is currently shipping the vials to five vaccine producers, including Moderna, as well as a few companies making treatments for Covid-19, which he declined to name. Not all of them have been selected for Operation Warp Speed. Though the contract is intended to support companies Barda has invested in, Ganti says it also permits SiO2 to sell to non-Barda-funded pharma clients.

Yaday says he is conflicted about the research agency’s decision to back a relative newcomer in the midst of a global pandemic. “Is this a good move for innovation? Absolutely,” he says. In the long run, Yaday expects companies like SiO2 to be essential in creating new, more nimble ways to package drugs and vaccines that don’t rely on sand and glass. But should the US wager its ability to deliver large volumes of a Covid-19 vaccine on a new technology—especially when there are several large glass bottle manufacturers in Europe with long track records and deep ties to the vaccine industry? “That’s the part I just don’t know,” he says.

Updated 6/26/2020 4:25 pm ET: This story was updated to correct the amount of a contract between Barda and SiO2. It is for $143 million, not $143.

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