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N95 Mask Inventor Comes Out of Retirement to Fight COVID-19

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In the darkest times, history-making heroes emerge. This is the story of how material scientist and engineer Peter Tsai was forced out of retirement to continue his previous invention: the single-use N95 virus-blocking mask technology with valved respirators. The inventor was in retirement for only two years when COVID-19 hit the world and caused a shortage of N95 masks in hospitals. This, in return, put healthcare workers at risk of infection and exposed them to become carriers of the virus. 

What Are N95 Masks? 

In 1995, Peter Tsai patented the fabric which would eventually produce the most effective face covering to fight against respiratory diseases. They are exclusively used by healthcare workers and first responders. The coverings are classified as critical supplies. As the masks become uncomfortable after some time, they aren’t recommended for public use and should be reserved for essential workers in order to avoid production shortages. 

The valve of the N95 mask acts as an air filter, which blocks possible bacteria from entry. They allow for easier exhalation, as well as prevent humidity, heat risks, and carbon dioxide build-up. They are known as the most protective masks available on the market. When the shortage was announced in hospitals, Peter Tsai knew his work wasn’t finished.

Commitment to His Invention

Tsai immediately got to work. He set up a basic laboratory in his house and began brainstorming on how to decontaminate the masks and make them more affordable. He admitted that he worked on mostly a volunteer basis, which resulted in spending almost 20 hours a day in his home laboratory. 

His goal was to cheaply sterilize the masks without sacrificing their efficacy in order to make them suitable for reuse. This meant trying multiple methods, including boiling them, steaming them and leaving them out in the sunlight. His experiments produced a range of options. The best method resulted in keeping the masks in 160-degree, dry heat for 30 minutes. However, he stated that this may not be the most preferred method. Instead, he recommends buying seven N95 masks and using a new one each day. Afterward, the mask should be isolated in order to deactivate bacteria before it can be reused again. 

After running tests to determine which option works best, he published the results in a medical report. This offered a new insight into the cleaning and reuse of N95 masks without compromising the effectiveness of the mask filtration system. 

Reusable N95 Masks

Tsai continued to spread the word about the potential of the reusable N95. His suggestion was to replace the material with non-woven fabrics, such as carpet backings and car shop towels. Of course, Tsai wasn’t the only one who was doing research into the improvement of N95 masks in order to reduce the shortage. Fellow volunteer laboratory researchers reached out to him during their own experiments on how to scale the N95 mask production. Tsai immediately joined the teams and became an important part of the proposed solutions. 

Tsai’s help and commitment to improving the efficiency of his own product has been widely appreciated by his fellow volunteer coworkers, who describe him as a rockstar. But after being told he was poised to be “the man of the hour,” Tsai wittingly replied that he’s “the man of the minute.” He refused to put himself on a pedestal as some sort of hero, and instead, claimed the real heroes are essential workers who have endangered their own lives to fight COVID-19. “The front-line hospital workers — they are heroes. I’m just trying to help them to wear the mask.”

Tsai also believes that even though N95 masks aren’t available for the public, they should wear other face coverings to help decrease the transmission of COVID-19. 

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