A team of University of Chicago researchers has developed a better, faster way to decontaminate N95 masks using ultraviolet light—potentially saving thousands of the sought-after masks during the COVID-19 pandemic.

The system is currently in use at the hospital at the University of Chicago, and the team is working with the Polsky Center for Entrepreneurship and Innovation to certify and scale it up for wider use.

Ultraviolet C, a wavelength of light with the ability to kill germs, has emerged as the preferred solution for disinfecting personal protective equipment. But even though it is easy to deploy and widely applicable, the method is not without its drawbacks; as with any light, UV systems can cast shadows, leaving parts of surfaces in the dark.

To address this issue, Peter Eng, an experimental physicist and research professor at UChicago, designed and fabricated an N95 respirator decontamination cabinet, which features a UV lamp arrangement that eliminates shadowing and optimizes the dose to all surfaces of the mask.

The current setup can fully disinfect 180 masks per hour, and the inventors estimate a scaled-up, automated version could process up to 1,440 masks per hour—or more than 34,000 per day.

A breakthrough after a restless night

Eng, who uses an ultraviolet curing system in his lab at the Center for Advanced Radiation Sources based at Argonne National Laboratory, came up with the idea for the decontamination cabinet in mid-March, during the first days of Chicago’s shelter-in-place order.

Unable to sleep one night, he got out of bed and began researching different decontamination techniques. By morning, he had discovered a large body of published work that indicated UV irradiation was effective in rendering viruses inactive and began placing calls to various researchers. Based on this information, he made a few preliminary calculations and produced a 3D Solidworks model and a list of components for a dedicated N95 mask disinfection device.

Read more at UChicago News.