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ASU Now | June 15, 2020

As the novel coronavirus created urgent demand for personal protective equipment, a major hospital chain in Phoenix was seeking a solution that would allow hospital staff to sanitize masks themselves, rather than sending their masks off site for disinfection and possibly getting other people’s masks in return.

According to sustainability scientist Paul Westerhoff, “It’s potentially a life-and-death issue in the context of viruses because once an N95 mask is fit to someone’s face, it may not form a proper seal on anyone else’s face.”

Westerhoff is a Regents Professor in the School of Sustainable Engineering and the Built Environment who leads research on the application of ultraviolet light to decontaminate water. He also works with ASU School of Molecular Sciences Professor Pierre Herckes on a project investigating aspects of PPE use in semiconductor fabrication clean rooms. Consequently, the scientific background to solve the hospital’s problem seemed firmly in place.

Westerhoff applied for a $150,000 National Science Foundation Rapid Response Research (RAPID) grant to help fund the effort, and it was subsequently approved. By the beginning of April, his team had a fully developed device ready for deployment. As explained in the operator’s manual they wrote, it can simultaneously disinfect 16 N95 masks within two minutes.