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In response to a rapidly increasing number of COVID-19 infections and a lack of critical medical supplies at hospitals, a multidisciplinary team of researchers from the University of Arizona is designing and 3D printing medical masks for use at Banner Medical Center and beyond.

Not only is the team seeking to fix the lack of N95 respirators—masks that fit around the entire face and filter 95 percent of airborne particles—they're designing new masks which may be even more efficient than the commonly used N95. The team hopes to begin printing the masks next week. 

And once these new masks are perfected, the research team will freely share their designs with local businesses that own 3D printers to rapidly increase the creation of the crucial devices. 

The team includes Doug Loy and Krishna Muralidharan of the UA's Department of Materials Science and Engineering, Sairam Parthasarathy of the Department of Medicine, and Armin Sorooshian of the Department of Chemical and Environmental Engineering.

“Together, we are stronger and bring in complementary expertise that the other teams don't have, so we can quickly come up with a solution and bring it to the community,” Parthasarathy said. “All of this we’re doing as a team.”

According to Pima County Health Director Bob England, when the county tried to respond to the requests of local hospitals, they discovered they could only deliver 9 percent of the surgical masks, 3 percent of the goggles and face shields, and 2 percent of the gloves that were requested. 

The project to fix this shortage includes three phases—designing, printing and testing—and each department is providing their abilities to each phase. 

While the Department of Materials Science and Engineering has researched 3D printing processes and materials for years, they hadn’t worked on medical equipment until a conversation between College of Engineering dean David Hahn and UA president Robert Robbins in mid-March. 

“It was top-down driven, and to be honest, from my experience in industry and the government, that’s pretty rare,” said Loy, a professor of materials science and engineering. “That’s probably the first university president I’ve seen who’s had such a direct influence in terms of driving a specific project that has that much relevance to the public.”

MSE faculty and students are designing and printing the masks with input from the College of Medicine. Loy estimates they’ve already printed more than two dozen prototype mask designs, and theorized far more. Some of the mask designs even came from prototype N95s the College of Medicine was developing before Hahn and Robbins’ discussion. 

“It’s great for the students, because they’re learning more than just from textbooks. They’re doing designs, building prototypes and testing them and stepping up all the way into manufacturing,” Loy said. “This is a pretty invaluable experience for them.”

With the UA’s current supply of 3D printers, Loy estimates they can 3D print 400 masks per week, once a design is finalized and approved. However, the University recently ordered 10 more printers, which should increase their capacity to more than 1000 masks per week. 

The masks are being printed with polylactic acid, and modeled to fix problems with the current N95s. 

“A lot of them, the fit isn’t good so it leaks around the edges, they’re uncomfortable and a good fraction take too long to print and are overly complicated – one design had 15 or 16 parts that you had to assemble,” Loy said. “So we’re looking at very simple designs with good fits, good sealing properties, comfortable, and we’re even looking for better designs for the straps.” 

Once the masks are printed, the Colleges of Medicine, and Chemical and Environmental Engineering test their efficacy. Part of this testing involves putting the mask on a mannequin with simulated lungs, and checking the amount of particles inside and outside of the mask. This testing is benefited by Sorooshian’s extensive research with aerosols in the atmosphere. 

“We’re finding our prototype, with a marriage of FDA-approved products, is actually working superior to the N95. So I believe this mask we’re making will be leaner, meaner and better,” Parthasarathy said. “Making this mask is one thing, but we need to be self-sufficient without having to depend on supplies coming from the outside world. We need to home grow these, and that’s the potential that 3D printing can do.”

The College of Engineering is maintaining a communication channel with multiple local businesses with 3D printers, such as Konica Minolta, that are willing to offer their resources to help supply hospitals. Other UA departments, such as Planetary Science, are also offering their printers to help. 

“Once we test it and prove that it works, we’ll get the design just like a software with open source code. And we’ll give it to all of the manufacturing companies in town that have a 3D printer, and they can start printing away. It’s not just about us printing here at the U of A. We’ll share it with everybody, and not just in Tucson.”

Beyond the masks, the College of Medicine is also working on 3D printing ventilators and repurposing CPAP machines into ventilators to help hospitals. 

“They say necessity is the mother of invention, but I wish we found this to be more necessary earlier. If we had, we would have worked together sooner,” Parthasarathy said. “I’m glad that the five of us have been connected now, but it essentially underscores the importance of why we can’t just do lip sympathy to multidisciplinary research, but actually put these colleges together. We should always be reaching across the aisle.” 

 

The public is invited to contribute to these efforts by donating to the the College of Engineering Biomedical Device Fund at give.uafoundation.org .

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