How a humble Tennessee scientist became a worldwide hero amid coronavirus pandemic
KNOXVILLE, Tenn. - Before the coronavirus pandemic, Dr. Peter Tsai far from a household name. Although he was highly regarded as a materials scientist and inventor, very few people had heard of him.
COVID-19 had highlighted one of Tsai's inventions. He is the creator of the filter material in most disposable N95 respirators. As the pandemic worsened, healthcare workers across the country needed the masks to be sure, which meant there were shortages and massive markups.
The shortage was so bad that Tsai retired to plunge head-on into the solution to the crisis.
Since mid-March, Tsai has been a global force on two fronts: finding new ways to sterilize single-use respirators for reuse and quickly increase their production.
"My invention is just an ordinary invention," says Peter Tsai, inventor of the N95 filtration material.
"My invention is just an ordinary invention," the 68-year-old said humbly in an interview with Knox News. "But because of the need for respirators, people think it's very important."
Tsai's invention is not new. As early as 1995, he applied for the first patent for filtration technology. Through his invention, the filter fabric of the masks receives a permanent electrostatic charge by being exposed to an halo. Scientists call this an electrical "corona". Tsai called his process "coronal charging".
The irony of the name is not lost in Tsai.
"I use coronal charging to fight the corona virus," he joked.
Tsai has a long career in textile manufacturing and technology. He graduated from today's National Taipei University of Technology in 1975. He worked in manufacturing for several years before moving to the United States in the 1980s to do a PhD in materials science at the University of Kansas.
During his research career at the University of Tennessee-Knoxville, Tsai continued to develop his filtration technology while pursuing other projects. He holds 12 US patents in filtration technology and other fields.
Although his material and production processes made a big difference in the world, it wasn't news on the front page. He retired at the end of 2019. Then you know what happened this year.
"I felt very stressed at the beginning," he said. "I have a lot of pressure and a lot of questions."
He knew the types of stress that respirators could tolerate and published these thoughts in a special emergency article in the Journal of Emergency Medicine. He turned his home into a laboratory and published further results.
One group donated an ozone machine, typically used in hospital sterilization, to see if it would work. Tsai cooked and steamed masks. He borrowed a neighbor's oven to see if masks could be safely heated using conventional kitchen appliances. He exposed the respirators to sunlight. The masks were then retested to see if they had lost filter performance.
Ozone was a no-go because it ruined elastic or rubber ear loops. Wet heat had to be used carefully to avoid deforming the masks. Home stoves are heated too unevenly and imprecisely. Alcohol has ruined the filters. Other techniques, such as dry heat and hydrogen peroxide, seemed more promising.
But Tsai was unable to fully test every technique, nor could it confirm that it killed viruses. That worried him.
"I started to wonder if people would use my methods without validation," said Tsai. "If it doesn't really sterilize the mask and people reuse it, we would have big problems."
He contacted other scientists and contacted a team from the University of Tennessee Medical Center to validate his approaches. N95DECON, an interdisciplinary research group, also got in touch. It conducted its own tests to validate some of its suggestions in addition to others.
N95DECON recommends versions of some of the first Tsai sterilization approaches. The validation studies cite communication with Tsai and the experiments of over a hundred N95DECON members. Their results reflect some suggestions from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention for Mask Sterilization.
However, reusing masks is only half the battle.
The world is facing a critical supply shortage. Few domestic suppliers produce N95 filter material. Half of the world's N95 masks are made in China. The Food and Drug Administration recently banned the reuse of many models of N95 masks.
Unknown to Tsai, the Oak Ridge National Lab was preparing to address the problem.
"We have a laboratory-wide initiative for COVID-19," said Dr. Merlin Theodore, Director of the Carbon Fiber Technology Facility at ORNL. She said that the facility was having difficulty finding a way to convert its machines to filter fabric manufacturing and that it wanted to involve local experts.
Dr. Lonnie Love, a senior scientist in ORNL's COVID manufacturing group, remembered Tsai but couldn't tell why.
"He remembered the name and couldn't remember why, so he asked his wife," said Theodore. As it turned out, Tsai was a neighbor of Love's mother-in-law. Then they quickly got in touch.
"He came the same week, fully dressed. He brought his own equipment, ”said Theodore. "He reminded me of someone who went to war."
With the know-how of Tsai, the ORNL team was able to quickly convert their carbon fiber processing system into a filtration cloth system. A filter cloth could be produced within a week. Theodore says it is impossible to tell how much time Tsai's involvement saved.
"Imagine how many experiments you would have to do to determine a working process," said Theodore. “That can be on average between months and years. But we didn't have to because he had already done all the experiments. "
The ORNL system can produce enough material for approximately 9,000 masks per hour. The material is supplied to academic and national laboratories for research purposes. Theodore said that ORNL had worked with industry partners for the market to quickly get fiber technology into the hands of local manufacturers.
A spokesman for ORNL confirmed that it had helped a filter material manufacturer based in Cookeville, Cummins, install equipment to manufacture Tsai's filter technology.
Tsai said this was anything but the only consultancy work he had done. He said he did volunteer advice and research around the clock.
Theodore said Tsai vigorously tried to refuse payment for his work with ORNL, but had to be paid according to the ORNL policy. Tsai said it was important to him to be helpful during this time.
"This is an opportunity for me to contribute to the community," he said. "If I can do that, it will be a good memory for the rest of my life."
The work was not without tribute. Tsai said he has lost 10 pounds since the pandemic started, but he is optimistic.
"Someone said I should get a Nobel Prize," Tsai joked. "But what I deserve is a" No Belly "award."
This article originally appeared on Knoxville News Sentinel: The inventor of the N95 filter became a hero in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic
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