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Labs Creating Mask Electronic Sterilization Process

N95 respirator mask

N95 particulate respirator face mask (Banej, Wikimedia Commons)

26 May 2020. Researchers from academic engineering and biology labs designed an electronic process for sterilizing N95 respirator face masks enabling their safe reuse. A team from University of South Florida in Tampa received a $167,568 award this month from National Science Foundation for a one-year project to determine the feasibility and effects of the process.

The South Florida team led by mechanical engineering professor Ying Zhong and biology professor Libin Ye is addressing the need for extending the lifetime of protective masks worn by health workers testing individuals or treating patients with Covid-19 infections. The workhorse face mask during the pandemic is the N95 respirator, designed to reduce the wearer’s exposure to aerosol particles and droplets. The tight-fitting mask filters out 95 percent of airborne particles while allowing for free breathing, but wearers are advised to discard the mask after each patient encounter, particularly if exposed to secretions from the patient.

Zhong’s Green Lab — short for green research for energy-efficient innovations — investigates specialized materials for insulation, electronics packaging, and textiles for sustainable use. Ye and colleagues study biofilms, communities of bacteria that form into self-supporting networks often responsible for infections resistant to antibiotics, sometimes found in health care facilities. The researchers say their system, called corona discharge, offers a safe, inexpensive, and sustainable method for sterilizing N95 respirator masks and other types of personal protective equipment, or PPE.

Corona discharge sends an electronically-charged cloud of ionized gas over the used masks. The ionized gas, called an atmospheric pressure plasma, creates a cloud that deactivates bacteria and viruses on the mask. At the same time, the plasma cloud reactivates the mask’s original electrostatic charge that deters microbes from accumulating. An early low-volume prototype device, say the researchers, killed 10,000 E. coli bacteria in less than a minute, and a working model would be able to treat larger quantities of equipment at one time.

The team says corona discharge would be a safer and more feasible process than many of today’s sterilization methods. “We hope portable corona screening devices,” says Zhong in a university statement, “can provide a safe solution for effective sterilization, instead of repeatedly utilizing large amounts of disinfectants.”

The NSF award calls for the researchers to document the sterilization effectiveness of corona discharge, as well as any effects on the masks themselves. The team will also document the mechanisms used by corona discharge for killing various bacteria and viruses, and any variations in its efficiency with different substrate materials and surface conditions. The researchers plan a more comprehensive study later on that details the corona discharge process on a wide range of microbes, their biological components like proteins and nucleic acids, and detailed interactions among photons, electrons, free radicals, and ionized particles.

“The application of this technology,” notes Ye, “will transform the way we disinfect for public health purposes in a more convenient and effective manner.” The university says the researchers filed a provisional patent on the technology, and are in discussions with a medical device company to design a device that would cost less than $50.00

National Science Foundation awarded the funds under its Rapid Response Research program that provides up to $200,000 for projects of up to one year to support technologies for fighting the Covid-19 pandemic.

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