UW News

September 3, 2020

First responders get training on how to decontaminate masks

N95 masks under a green light

A UW-led partnership designed and built portable, easy-to-use boxes to allow first responders to decontaminate their N95 face masks between uses.Engineering Innovation in Health

A University of Washington-led team has developed a box that can decontaminate N95 respirator masks using ultraviolet light. First responders use these masks to protect themselves from COVID-19 and are concerned about shortages. This way, staff can reuse masks instead of needing to use a new one each time.

The research group is currently building and distributing boxes to first-responder stations across King County. On Sept. 2 the team hosted trainings to help fire and emergency medical services staff learn how the box works, how to load masks and how to clean and service the box so that they can use it in their own stations.

The box uses UVC radiation, the highest energy of the three types of UV rays.

“When we started this project there wasn’t anything commercially available that strictly does UVC decontamination of N95 masks and could be distributed to individual fire stations,” said Jonathan Posner, UW professor of both mechanical engineering and chemical engineering. “There are boxes that generate UVC for general decontamination, but treating N95 masks specifically for COVID-19 is a unique challenge. It requires an effective dosage distributed evenly to all surfaces of a set of masks.”

People standing around a refrigerator-sized box

Ben Sullivan, a UW mechanical engineering doctoral student (right), shows first responders how to use the box to decontaminate N95 masks.Andy Freeberg/University of Washington

The team’s box, which looks like a microwave and is about the size of a small refrigerator, can disinfect all surfaces of 15 masks at one time. The process takes about a half an hour.

The team hopes to build at least 100 boxes and is interested in eventually distributing boxes across Washington.

For more details about this project, see this story from the mechanical engineering department and a related story on Q13.

“One of the most impressive parts about the project is its truly local and collaborative nature,” said Posner, who is also the director of the UW’s Engineering Innovation in Health program, which managed this project. “Many of the people involved volunteered their own personal time and resources and we truly couldn’t have done it without each and every one of them, especially the organizations who stepped up to fund the project.”

This is a partnership with local health officials, first responders, manufacturers and charitable foundations, including the Medic One Foundation, UW Population Health Initiative and Medtronic Foundation.

Contact Posner (jposner@uw.edu) and UW mechanical engineering doctoral student Ben Sullivan (bensulli@uw.edu) for more information.