Shining Light Prolongs Life of the N95 Surgical Mask

Home / About the Foundation / Publications / Shining Light Prolongs Life of the N95 Surgical Mask

Shining Light Prolongs Life of the N95 Surgical Mask

A UV-N95 Device with light on.

N95 surgical face masks are an example of personal protective equipment used to protect frontline healthcare workers from the spread of COVID-19. The need for the masks soared as the pandemic took hold around the world and manufacturers struggled to ramp up their production efforts to meet the growing demand. For these companies, and for scientists on all continents, it’s a race against time to control the disease.

Scientists at the University of Ottawa Heart Institute, working in partnership with teams at Luzchem Research Inc., and with advice from Professor Tito Scaiano in the Faculty of Science at the University of Ottawa, are “shining light” (both figuratively and literally) to address the problem.

Dr. Emilio Alarcon, a scientist in the Division of Cardiac Surgery & Bio-Engineering and Therapeutic Solutions (BEaTS) Laboratory at the UOHI had already focused his team to produce hand sanitizer in the lab to minimize the need for the Heart Institute to rely on external sources.  His team then turned their attention to developing a process that combines temperature and light to effectively “clean” used (and potentially contaminated) masks.

Heart Institute staff and patients would not be caught without two of the most basic necessities needed to minimize the spread of infection, hand sanitizer and N95 masks.

“It’s a contained system, almost like a tanning bed,” says Dr. Alarcon. “After use, the contaminated masks are treated in a custom chamber, where they are exposed to a photothermal treatment that safely removes any harmful microbes on the mask that could cause an infection.”

Alarcon says the technology could enable healthcare workers across the country to reuse their mask a second or even a third time without compromising their health and safety – or that of the patient for which they are providing care.

“We are essentially working to double, even triple the number of masks available to the Canadian healthcare system,” says Alarcon.

“This is a fragile time for science,” he adds. “It’s easy and natural to feel frustrated in these uncertain times. There is also this need – a calling, a duty we share as scientists – to push ourselves, to challenge our concept of what is possible. This is what it means to be a scientist.”

Testing has been taking place in the BEaTS lab and Luzchem with the goal to be ready to deploy the technology when needed. This innovative process could make a huge difference for countries that don’t have the resources, or quick access for this necessary equipment.

Donors to the Heart Institute can take pride in knowing that their gift not only supports research to ensure the Heart Institute has the capacity to be ready for our own patients and staff, it may also serve vulnerable communities around the world.