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It’s Possible To Hack Your Own Home Mask Sterilizer

Timothy Boyer Ph.D.'s picture
Mask sterilizer needs only heat and humidity.

Researchers at the Department of Energy’s SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory may have found a hackable solution for sterilizing your COVID-19 masks at home.

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Not Enough PPE’s For Everyone

One of the biggest hurdles toward protecting the public from COVID-19 has been keeping everyone supplied with enough masks to allow users to switch from dirty masks to clean ones as needed.

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In fact, the problem is so prevalent that healthcare workers are especially affected by the shortage requiring them to reuse masks that are difficult to impossible to clean adequately in a way that will not affect the integrity of the cleaned masks.

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If masks are reused and not sterilized, not only can the dirty masks cause serious skin irritation to the face, but can also contribute to the spread of the coronavirus by handling the mask repeatedly.

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Thus far, some of the focus on the problem has been to seek ways to clean and reuse masks at least until the PPE shortage can be resolved.

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“This is really an issue, so if you can find a way to recycle the masks a few dozen times, the shortage goes way down,” said Stanford physicist Steven Chu, a senior author on a recently published paper that shows that gently heating N95 masks in high relative humidity could inactivate SARS-CoV-2 virus trapped within the masks—without degrading the masks’ performance.

“You can imagine each doctor or nurse having their own personal collection of up to a dozen masks. The ability to decontaminate several of these masks while they are having a coffee break will lessen the chance that masks contaminated with COVID viruses would expose other patients.”

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According to a news release, the researchers focused on using a combination of heat and humidity to try to decontaminate test mask material contaminated with batches of SARS-CoV-2 virus suspended in liquids designed to mimic the fluids that might spray out of our mouths when we cough, sneeze, sing or simply breathe.

After the mask test samples were sprayed with the viral particles and then allowed to dry, the fabrics were placed under variety of heat and humidity conditions ranging from 25 to 95 degrees Celsius for up to 30 minutes with relative humidity up to 100 percent.

What they found was that using a combination of high heat and humidity, the amount of live virus on the fabric samples were significantly decreased. However, they found that the temperatures used had to be below a certain limit so as not to cause the fabric sample to degrade, which would damage the integrity of an actual mask for reuse.

The news release reports that, “…The sweet spot appeared to be 85 degrees Celsius with 100 percent relatively humidity—the team could find no trace of SARS-CoV-2 after cooking the masks under those conditions.”

The researchers determined that the masks could be decontaminated and reused as much as 20 times, and that their heat and humidity also sterilized at least two other viruses—a human coronavirus that causes the common cold and the chikungunya virus.

Mask Sterilizer Hacking Opportunity

The importance of their findings is that it may be just a matter of a few short months before someone manufactures a home-use mask sterilizer that in actuality would be little more than a combination of a heating unit and a simple humidifier that almost anyone could hack together in their own home using an Arudino or Raspberry Pi microcontroller.

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Timothy Boyer has a Ph.D. in Molecular and Cellular Biology from the University of Arizona. For 20+ years he has been employed as a freelance health and science writer. Today, with an eye on the latest news, Timothy continues writing about science with a focus on what you need to know for healthier living. For continual updates about health, you can also follow Timothy on Twitter at TimBoyerWrites.

Image Source: Courtesy of Roman Ivanyshyn from Pixabay

References:

Faced with pandemic shortages, researchers combine heat and humidity to disinfect N95 masks for reuse” Department of Energy’s SLAC National Accelerator Laboratory news release, Sept. 24, 2020.

Decontamination of SARS-CoV-2 and Other RNA Viruses from N95 Level Meltblown Polypropylene Fabric Using Heat under Different Humidities” Rafael K Campos, Jing Jin, Grace H. Rafael, Mervin Zhao, Lei Liao, Graham Simmons, Steven Chu, Scott c Weaver, Wah Chiu, and Yi Cui; ACS Nano, Just Accepted Manuscript

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