Research focused on recycling PPE and medical devices with radiation

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The COVID-19 pandemic has led to such a stark shortage of personal protective equipment (PPE) that health care professionals have resorted to wearing trash bags as makeshift gowns. Many people have come up with their own unique forms of protective gear to enforce social distancing, from T-shirt masks to shields made out of pool floats.

In hopes of mitigating these obstacles, researchers David Staack and Matt Pharr from the College of Engineering and Suresh Pillai from the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences began studying ways to recycle PPE through radiation. They teamed up using the Food Technology Facility for Electron Beam and Space Food Research and the Plasma Engineering and Non-Equilibrium Processing laboratory on the Texas A&M campus. 

Prior to COVID-19, a large portion of Staack’s research already focused on medical device sterilization and decontamination. Staack, Pillai and Pharr were working on a similar medical device sterilization project funded by the Department of Energy that identified how polymers and plastics are changed when directly exposed to electron beams or gamma rays. So when the pandemic struck, it wasn’t difficult for the research team to shift their focus to begin sterilizing and recycling PPE like surgical masks and gowns, face shields and most importantly, N95 respirators. 

There are two components of an N95 mask that determine its functionality: filtration and fit. The N95 mask is composed of microscopic pores meant to filter out contaminants such as dust and fumes down to about 0.3 microns. Combined with an electrostatic charge on the non-woven polypropylene fiber for nanoscale particle trapping, the mask is capable of filtering 95 percent of particles 300 nanometers in size, if worn properly. Designed to fit snuggly around the nose, face and chin, the mask can prevent germs from escaping through the sides of the mask when speaking or breathing.

As part of their research, Staack and his team sent brand new N95 masks and other PPE through their radiation recycling process at the Electron Beam Facility. While they found that the mechanical properties of the equipment were not damaged, i.e., the N95 masks, surgical masks, gowns and face shields were all still able to be worn appropriately, the N95 mask no longer filtered 95 percent of particles.

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