A few months ago, I had no idea what an N95 was, but now I will never forget. And the man who is responsible for engineering the mask, Dr. Peter Tsai, has never been busier—despite retiring two years ago.
When COVID-19 began to spread around the world in March, Tsai was asked to come out of retirement and help overwhelmed healthcare workers and medical companies—and his work has undoubtedly saved lives.
“Everyone was asking me about the respirators,” said Tsai, 68, who is originally from Taiwan and now lives in Knoxville, Tenn.
People wanted to know how to scale up production as the critically needed N95 masks started running out—and how to sterilize the masks for reuse. N95 masks, unlike cloth masks and other forms of personal protective gear, actually filter out contaminants, which makes them very important for medical health professionals working with COVID-19 patients.
So Tsai got to work. He set up a lab in his home and began working “almost 20 hours a day” trying to figure out how to decontaminate the masks. He tried everything he could think of the cheaply sterilize the masks without losing filtration usefulness. And then, after experimenting, he published an emergency medical report.
Tsai found that N95 masks can be heated at 158 degrees Fahrenheit for 60 minutes using a dry heat method. His hypothesis was supported by the National Institutes of Health. (For those of us who do not need an N95, according to Tsai, the best material for homemade masks is nonwoven fabrics, such as car shop towels.)
Dr. Tsai also began collaborating with research groups such as N95DECON and Oak Ridge National Lab to work on scaling up the production of N95 masks. With Dr. Tsai’s help, the lab was able to produce the filter technology they needed.
“He came in and described exactly what was needed to build his charging system and scale it,” said Lonnie Love, a lead scientist at Oak Ridge. “Tsai has been really critical for us to solve this problem fast.”
“He’s very humble and unassuming despite being a pioneer in this area of filtration,” Love also said. “Just when he’s ready to relax, all hell breaks loose, and he’s become critical.”
Merlin Theodore, the director of the Carbon Fiber Technology Facility at Oak Ridge said Tsai repeatedly rejected payment for his work, but Oak Ridge policy requires compensation.
“That’s what struck me the most about him,” Theodore said. “He didn’t care about the money. He just wanted to help as many people as he could.”
“If I can have this opportunity to help the community, then it will be a good memory for the rest of my life,” Tsai said. “I’m happy to do it.”