‘Serve those who serve our entire community’: Virginia Tech researchers create reusable N95 mask alternative

BLACKSBURG, Va. – Throughout the coronavirus pandemic, access to personal protective equipment has been a concern for health care workers across the country, so Virginia Tech researchers decided to get to work to help find a solution.

Researchers in Virginia Tech's DREAMS Lab have been working around the clock for months, trying to find a solution to a problem many feared the pandemic would create.

“We’ve tested different ideas and what works well, what doesn’t work well,” said Rod La Loy, a PhD student in Virginia Tech’s department of mechanical engineering.

“Could 3D printing be used to make an N95 replacement if the supply were to run out?” said Chris Williams, director of the DREAMS Lab at Virginia Tech.

Williams and his team immediately got to work, trying to create a mask that was reusable, comfortable and effective.

“We wanted a process that was easy to do, something that anyone could do with locally available resources but also make a mask that you could reuse, something that you were not going to throw away,” Williams said.

After hundreds of different prototypes, they've landed on an effective, efficient design that they say is as good if not better than a traditional N95 mask.

“Getting a reliable seal to the face that’s actually airtight and comfortable for long periods of time is a real challenge,” said Sam Pratt, a graduate student in the DREAMS Lab.

“The center part is essentially an N95 filter that can kind of be replaced as they get used up,” La Foy said.

Now researchers are working to ramp up production, with a goal of 300 masks a day.

“If you make it simple and you make it easy to do, then we can make a lot of them,” Pratt said.

Williams said the design is exciting not just for our region, but beyond.

“We can share this design to other communities so they can start making their own masks if needed at a large scale,” Williams said.

The new mask could potentially transform the way health care workers use PPE.

“Serve those who serve our entire community, so whatever way we can help, that’s where we’re going, that’s what we want to do,” Williams said.

The DREAMS Lab has been partnering with Carilion, which does not currently have a shortage of N95 masks. The Virginia Tech masks are expected to receive final approval for use in the hospital soon.

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