The masks that provide the greatest protection against inhaled viral particles are N95 respirators. These seal tightly, cover the mouth and nose, and have filters that purify air before it is inhaled. There are critical shortages of N95s the world over.
To help overcome supply shortages of the masks, Dr. Sahil Kapur, a plastic surgeon at the University of Texas MD Anderson Cancer Center is collaborating with two professors in Electrical and Computer Engineering, Caleb Kemere
and Jacob Robinson
, to create a silicone rubber harness that will fit over a surgical mask and seal it to the face.
“A big reason why surgical masks are not effective in protecting against aerosolized threats is because they allow unfiltered air to enter around the sides, bottom and top,” Kemere said. “Poorly fitted N95s suffer the same problem, which is why health care professionals are required to go through a special process of mask fitting and testing.
“Our hope is that if we can solve the leakage problem, then perhaps surgical masks can begin to be manufactured with materials of equivalent filtering ability as N95s, resulting in a simpler, easier, safer process for everyone,” he said.
Kemere has finished several prototypes and testing is underway in his neuroengineering lab at Rice’s BioScience Research Collaborative. Further tests are needed, Robinson said, but the simplicity of the design and the materials should help streamline production and regulatory approval. Kemere and Robinson hope to start providing harnesses to hospitals soon.
“With a single laser cutter and injection molding machine, we believe we can make several hundred harnesses per day out of materials that can be sterilized and reused and are compatible with federally approved surgical masks,” Robinson said.