Hospitals across the U.S. are facing a shortage of N95 masks amid the coronavirus pandemic, putting health care workers at increased risk of infection.

The health crisis has brought Peter Tsai, the material scientist and engineer who developed the mask's virus-blocking technology, out of retirement to study safe ways to disinfect the single-use masks for reuse — nearly 30 years after his invention.

"I just want to help people, and just do my job," Tsai said in an interview with Morning Edition.

With N95s in short supply, some medical personnel are resorting to sterilization methods typically used to expunge the virus, like alcohol and bleach, which can degrade the integrity of the masks.

Tsai - who retired from the University of Tennessee last year after more than 30 years of teaching - says that researchers racing to find safe methods to sterilize the masks have been flooding his inbox, asking questions about his patented technology.

Among those seeking his consult is a team of volunteer researchers at universities and organizations across the U.S. looking at potential solutions for N95 mask decontamination. Since mid-March, N95DECON, as the collective is called, has experimented with heat, a type of ultraviolet light and hydrogen peroxide vapor.

To Tsai's colleagues, like Maha Krishnamoorthi, he's a rock-star.

Krishnamoorthi, vice president of the University of Tennessee Research Foundation, says she told Tsai, "You seem to be the man of the hour."

"And he said, 'No - I'm man of the minute.' "

Tsai says the praise belongs to the health care professionals who endanger themselves fighting the coronavirus.

"The front-line hospital workers - they are heroes. I'm just trying to help them to wear the mask."


Peter tsai helped invent N95 masks and thinks there's a way to clean and reuse them

Material scientist peter tsai, who invented the technology that makes material used in N95 masks, says there could be away to make them safe to reuse. he is researching whether blasting N95 masks at intense temperatures for short periods will kill the virus without degrading the mask.

In an interview with vice news he said that he hopes to publish the results of his research within days. he is one of several researchers at companies or institutions looking at heat as a potential low-tech solution for the shortage of masks impacting frontline workers and members of the public around the world due to the coronavirus pandemic.

"We are going to use heat, [158 degrees fahrenheit (70 degrees celsius)], for 30 minutes, to see if we can kill covid-19," he told vice news. "We should get the results in one or two days."

The shortage of masks has gotten so bad that nurses and doctors are using alcohol and clorox wipes to try to decontaminate their masks, vice news reports. This could cause more harm than good, putting those who work on the frontline in potentially more danger than they are already. [Like the video below]


Tsai is using data collected from virologists in china, where the pandemic first broke out, who conducted similar experiments. According to him, a portion of those virologists similarly found that ’65 degrees celsius [149 degrees fahrenheit] for 30 minutes’ would kill covid-19.

The difficulty is finding a temperature that kills covid-19 without destroying the mask. that includes both burning the mask and rendering its functions ineffective. The masks are also electrostatically charged, which allows them to suck in and trap airborne particles that might contain viruses. according to tsai, this could be undone if the mask is exposed to extreme temperatures.

Whilst european certification requires a mask to be able to withstand 158 degrees fahrenheit (70 degree celsius) for up to 24 hours, to kill any virus it could require over 200 degrees, a temperature that has the potential to kill any virus. Vice news also spoke to scott mechler, a mechanical engineer at the massachusetts-based consolidated sterilizer systems, who cautioned that, even if this was successful, the masks would likely only be reusable three to five times if they’re sterilized in this way.