Low-cost sterilization units combat N95 shortage, help businesses

July 7, 2020

Students in the Arizona State University Luminosity Lab have created two versions of a low-cost, small-scale sterilization unit that is effective on general personal protective equipment, including increasingly scarce N95 masks.

They hope to help with the N95 mask shortage as well as help small businesses sterilize the masks and other equipment needed to keep their businesses running during the coronavirus pandemic. The project is just one part of Luminosity’s multifaceted response to the COVID-19 crisis. Team member John Patterson examines one of two sterilization systems invented by the ASU Luminosity Lab. Photo courtesy John Patterson Team member John Patterson examines one of two sterilization systems invented by the ASU Luminosity Lab. Photo courtesy of John Patterson Download Full Image

At the onset of the pandemic, the students in the lab collectively identified the ways that they could best leverage their diverse skills to positively impact the situation. This resulted in a series of projects, from developing novel devices to assisting small businesses in adapting to the lockdown, as well as producing and delivering over 10,000 pieces of personal protective equipment through Luminosity’s PPE Response Network

“During these efforts, it became clear that to alleviate the increased demand of personal protective equipment, production would need to be supported by an effective method to sterilize and reuse it. This is particularly relevant with N95 masks, which are in high demand, but more difficult to rapidly manufacture,” said Mark Naufel, executive director of Luminosity Lab. “The sterilization systems produced by our students are cost-effective, scalable solutions that can be produced and leveraged by schools, businesses and medical providers to help alleviate their personal protective equipment needs.”

The N95 problem

N95 masks, which filter out 95% of all airborne particles, are difficult to obtain during the pandemic, and not purely due to their high demand.

N95s are also a challenge to manufacture because they use a special material called melt-blown fabric, which is key to the masks’ filtration ability. Though factories can ramp up mask production, they reach a bottleneck when it comes to access to this material. Melt-blown fabric requires specialized machines to create it, and the machines themselves cost millions of dollars and take around six months to assemble.

These factors, combined with the increased necessity of N95 masks, mean that health care workers are forced to reuse the ones they have.

But to reuse these masks, they must be sterilized, and this too presents a challenge. Existing sterilization systems are extremely expensive and are only built for large-scale settings, like big hospitals. This leaves smaller hospitals, clinics and other small businesses without a way to easily or affordably sterilize their N95s and other personal protective equipment.

N95 masks are a challenge to sterilize because each sterilized mask must still meet the standard of filtering out 95% of airborne particles. It must also retain its unique fit to its user’s face, which ensures an airtight seal.

“It's been really cool to see how a team of five students is really all it takes to create innovative solutions to problems in society and also to push those solutions into actual, impactful products." — Nikhil Dave, ASU undergraduate student

“In designing these systems, we have to make sure that they not only eliminate any viral particles along with bacteria, but also that they don’t hurt these standards for the personal protective equipment,” said Katie Pascavis, a mechanical engineering undergraduate student who focused on those standards as part of the Luminosity team.

Testing how many viral particles are on a mask post-treatment, however, requires special labs and equipment that the student team didn’t have. So they put out a call to faculty across the university with the right tools and expertise.

“We were lucky to find amazing collaborators at ASU in the Biodesign Institute as well as a variety of schools. And those collaborators really helped push us forward in terms of actually testing the protocols,” said Nikhil Dave, a neuroscience and innovation in society undergraduate student and leader of the team.

The team also spent time testing how many times an N95 mask could go through their sterilization processes and emerge with those standards intact. It’s an important piece of data, because reusing an N95 mask at all is going against its original intent to be disposable, points out David Wallace, a PhD candidate in human systems engineering and member of the team.

“They were never designed in the first place to reuse. It’s essentially like asking someone to reuse a Kleenex, when it was not designed as a handkerchief,” Wallace said.

Sustainable sterilization

Rendering of the ozone sterilization system

Rendering of the ozone sterilization system. Courtesy of ASU Luminosity Lab

The team created two sterilization systems. The first uses vaporized hydrogen peroxide and is intended to combat the N95 mask shortage. The second relies on ozone, and was designed to provide small businesses with a way to sterilize a variety of items, including clothing and reusable face masks. The ozone system is simple enough to be run from a car battery if electricity isn’t available.

“What's particularly notable about the ozone system is that, unlike most common sterilization systems or even our own vaporized hydrogen peroxide system, we don't need to put anything in it to generate the sterilization agent,” Dave said. “Rather, all we need is a power source, and it will continuously generate ozone gas. So it's environmentally sustainable and also a lot more cost effective.”

Rendering of the vaporized hydrogen peroxide system

Rendering of the vaporized hydrogen peroxide system. Courtesy of ASU Luminosity Lab

“The cool thing about both these systems is that they are very easy to manufacture. They don't require specialized tools,” added John Patterson, an electrical engineering master’s degree student who leads prototyping and construction on the team. “These things don’t even need to be manufactured by professionals. These can be constructed by hobbyists. They can be constructed by teams of engineering students. Anyone who is interested in collaborating and contributing can do that.”

The team put new N95 masks through treatment cycles in both systems. After five cycles in the ozone system and 20 cycles in the vaporized hydrogen peroxide system, treated masks performed at the same level as new, untreated masks, suggesting that the systems were not weakening the masks’ filtration ability up to those amounts of cycling. However, the team pointed out that when the masks are being worn between each cycle, they will undergo more wear and tear and may degrade more quickly than they did in testing.

Portable, effective and affordable

The Luminosity team’s journey from drawing board to pending patents was one of incredible speed. In under three months, they designed, developed, scientifically validated and submitted invention disclosures for their two sterilization systems. Now, they hope to continue that momentum in order to deploy the systems anywhere they might be of help.

“It's been really cool to see how a team of five students is really all it takes to create innovative solutions to problems in society and also to push those solutions into actual, impactful products,” Dave said.

Key to their success, they note, is the fact that they were able to collaborate with many ASU departments as well as external health care partners.

“This was a great opportunity to see how collaboration can lead to prosperity for everyone involved, in terms of getting these systems built, getting them tested as quickly as possible, and hopefully to save as many lives as we can by getting the technology in the hands of those who need it,” Patterson said.

Part of their plan to make their technology accessible to the community was to intentionally create the systems with affordable materials. Vaporized hydrogen peroxide sterilization systems exist already, but they’re meant for large-scale settings like big hospitals and can cost up to $1 million.

The materials for the students’ vaporized hydrogen peroxide system, however, cost around $300. The ozone system is even cheaper, its materials costing around $60. The systems combine affordability with portability, and they sterilize just as effectively as the larger, pricier machines.

This makes them useful for a wide range of settings — not just hospitals and clinics, but also schools, businesses and locations with less resources.

“In developing nations or other places where maybe people can't afford personal protective equipment in large quantities, these would also be a great way for them to reuse equipment and cut some of those costs in a more sustainable fashion,” Pascavis added.

Luminosity student team photo

The team behind the sterilization systems. Clockwise from upper left: Katie Pascavis, Nikhil Dave, John Patterson and David Wallace. Not pictured: Abhik Chowdury. Photo courtesy Nikhil Dave

Ready for a new normal

Though the future of COVID-19 is unpredictable, it seems that face coverings and personal protective equipment will remain a part of society for the foreseeable future.

“Many large and small companies are requiring the use of face masks to reduce the spread of COVID-19. So I think, with personal protective equipment becoming a regular part of our daily lives, we're going to have to figure out creative and inventive ways to reuse the equipment that was built to be disposable,” Dave said.

The team is in conversations with the Arizona Commerce Authority and the Arizona governor’s office to determine how they can help get these systems out to businesses and schools around the state, allowing us to reopen stronger. They’ve also sent systems to a few health care facilities around the state, including Banner Health, that are providing the team with feedback.

However, those interested in using the team’s designs need not wait for a product rollout. They recently made the instructions for building and using the ozone system and the vaporized hydrogen peroxide system available by publishing them on the preprint server MedRxiv.

Businesses and other entities who want to obtain some of these units, as well as makers who are interested in helping produce more of these systems to meet the community’s needs, should contact Luminosity Lab Director Mark Naufel at mnaufel@asu.edu.

“The systems are ready,” Dave said. “We’d like to make them usable for anyone who feels like they can use them.”

Top photo: Team member John Patterson examines one of two sterilization systems invented by the ASU Luminosity Lab. Photo courtesy John Patterson

Mikala Kass

Communications Specialist, ASU Knowledge Enterprise


Quest for invention: Data-driven ways to cope with COVID-19

Devils Invent challenges students to devise high-tech tools to help withstand pandemic’s impacts

July 7, 2020

Billions upon billions of bits of data — 2.5 quintillion bytes daily, to be exact — are produced by today’s vast array of robust information-gathering technologies, Chris Yoo told Arizona State University students competing in the most recent Devils Invent engineering design challenge.

Those who can mine that data and detect the patterns it reveals could help tackle some of the world’s most serious problems, Yoo said. Perhaps even the current COVID-19 pandemic. woman in mask with text over image that reads: Mask Finder Students competing in Arizona State University’s Devils Invent hackathons are tasked with formulating ideas for technology-based solutions to major societal problems. In the most recent competition, student teams focused on developing devices and systems to help communities reduce the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic. Image courtesy of the Devils Invent team BDJAZ/finder.com Download Full Image

Yoo is the CEO of Systems Imagination, which sponsored the June 26–28 Devils Invent Hackathon “Unleashing Data Against COVID.” It was the 18th Devils Invent event since the program began in 2016 and the second conducted virtually to comply with ASU’s social distancing practices in response to COVID-19.  

Systems Imagination makes use of data science and artificial intelligence to rapidly identify “actionable insights,” as Yoo calls them, that help pharmaceutical companies better position their products to have positive impacts on public health. A sister company, Systems Oncology, has used System Imagination’s technology on massive data sets to develop more effective cancer therapeutics.

Eight hackathon teams comprised of approximately 70 engineering and science students, most from ASU’s Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering, were directed to emulate the companies’ business model and use publicly available data to devise ideas for how big data could help communities mount defenses against the continuing spread of COVID-19.

“Students are often able to bring fresh perspectives to wide open challenges like this,” Yoo said. “If you look at the history of invention and innovation you’ll see some of the most imaginative ideas come from younger people driven only by simple curiosity and who haven’t experienced being told what doesn’t work.”

Yoo’s hopeful expectations were borne out by the results of many of the hackathon teams’ efforts.

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The Devils Invent team Apparently Coders came up with the Mass Tracker. The system consists of an app and a website to provide real-time information to help people avoid locations where crowds have gathered that may pose a higher risk of COVID-19 transmission. Image courtesy of the Apparently Coders team

Tech solutions for keeping people safe

Six teams advanced to present their solutions in the final round: Founding Hackers, BDJAZ, ViralHack, IMpossible, Apparently Coders and Novice.

Their ideas included information technology-based methods of enabling COVID-19 risk assessment so people can avoid places where infections are spiking and accessing data to help predict the next “hot spots” for the disease.

There were also concepts for developing technology to better predict and track the number of cases geographically and to provide visualization of information derived from that tracking.

Some ideas focused on designing technology that helps people understand their risks when they fail to heed public health guidelines and to inform them of best practices for protecting themselves. Other proposed devices would track the availability of hospital care in communities to aid people seeking prompt medical attention.

Teams motivated to make real-world contributions

The team Founding Hackers won third place and $500 for the Clean Cart, which encourages safer business practices and helps individuals determine in real-time where to shop confidently based on information about the levels of coronavirus outbreak in specific locations.

Team members were Curtiss Brouthers, a learning sciences graduate student in ASU’s Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College, biomedical engineering graduate student Patience Yeboah, computer science student Valarie Adams and Aaron Morse, who is studying engineering with a focus on robotics.

“Our application provides focused reviews of businesses, specifically essential businesses like grocery stores, and their compliance with Centers for Disease Control guidelines and enforcement so that customers can be informed about the risk level when shopping,” Brouthers said. “They could then comparison shop based upon distance and relative risk. This could help alleviate exposure to risk by reducing the amount of traffic between shopping locations.”  

Brouthers says he and his teammates liked the challenge of dealing with “real-world, ‘wicked’ problems,” and were able to build on their skills with big data and data visualization, while getting more experience in brainstorming ideas, conceptualizing solutions, overcoming obstacles, prototyping, developing product pitches and coordinating teamwork. The team members are excited about entering future competitions together, he says.

Apparently Coders won second place and $750 for the Mass Tracker, which graphically provides geographical displays of areas where the COVID-19 risk is higher.

The team consisted of Fulton Schools computer science students Rheaa Sharma, Jannis Grimm and Vyom Desai, software engineering students Suhit Agarwal and Brenden Loftin, and Tapa Kar, an engineering graduate student focusing on robotics and autonomous and artificial intelligence systems. Agarwal is credited for coming up with the idea for team’s project.

“The problem we aimed to solve came from my personal experience,” Sharma said. “My family and I went out to get groceries, but the store was too crowded, which forced us to go in search of another store. This proved to be time-consuming and inefficient. We realized that if we had known the store was crowded, we would have visited another store.”

Sharma describes the team’s product as an app and a website that predicts the risk of contracting the coronavirus at a specific location based on parameters such as the number of active COVID-19 cases in the area, population density and the total population of a county.

“Our product also includes features that help you decide if you should get tested for COVID-19,” Sharma said.

Her team’s Devils Invent experience was “incredible,” she said. “We loved the competitive spirit and we were amazed by some of the other teams’ ideas.”

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Students learn to first clearly define the problems their Devils Invent projects are attempting to solve. In this image, the BDJAZ project team details reasons for increases in COVID-19 infections. Those factors were used to develop the concept for the Mask Finder system, designed to show whether most people in specific locations are wearing or not wearing protective face masks that prevent exposure to COVID-19. Image courtesy of the Devils Invent team BDJAZ

Fast-spreading disease gave relevance to students’ project

The first-place prize of $1,000 went to the BDJAZ team for a working prototype called Mask Finder that analyzes publicly available image data to determine where the spread of COVID-19 may be higher based on people's use of face masks in those locales.

The product is a mask-recognition artificial intelligence device that determines the percentage of people wearing masks in a specific location by using public or local businesses’ surveillance cameras, said BDJAZ member Andrew Deros, who is pursuing a degree in mechanical engineering in the Fulton Schools and an industrial design degree in ASU’s Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts.

Along with Deros, the team included mechanical engineering students Bill Nguyen, Daniel Kim, Jaime Gutierrez and Zachary Sanchez.

“The problem we were addressing is people’s concern about the usage of masks in their area. There just isn’t a good way to determine that sort of information currently” Deros said. “However, with Mask Finder, businesses can begin to rebuild confidence in their customers and help people feel more comfortable going outside.”

This was the sixth Devils Invent event for Deros, who says he finds it exhilarating to “work with new people and come up with new and exciting ideas to some very relevant problems. We get to build teamwork skills just as much as technical skills.”

He says participating in a virtual Devils Invent — using Discord, an instant messaging and voice-over internet protocol application — made it possible “to hang out with friends similar to the way I would play video games online, which made the experience more fun.”

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The Clean Cart project developed by the Devils Invent team Founding Hacking gives consumers metrics to determine if essential businesses in their communities are adequately following health and safety guidelines to protect customers from transmission of COVID-19. Image courtesy of the Founding Hackers team.

Unleashing young talent on meaningful endeavors

The winners of the virtual competition “demonstrated a level of determination not often seen in our in-person events,” said Anthony Kuhn, the Devils Invent director and a lecturer on the Fulton Schools faculty.

“The winning teams in this event showed that determination in some of the clearest ways possible. I saw them constantly online, plugging away on their Discord channels,” Kuhn said.

“Many of these students have not dealt with data analysis in such a real way before,” Kuhn said. “The majority came in with little to no experience in this particular subject, but they buckled down, and with the help of Systems Imagination’s mentors were able to learn quickly.”

Nico DeBruyn, a marketing manager and intern manager for Systems Imagination, with a degree in nutrition and dietetics from ASU, was one of the mentors for the event, as well as a judge. He says Devils Invent is showcasing the entrepreneurial spirit among ASU students.

“This is like both a sprint and a marathon for them. They’re spending a lot of hours on this day and night,” DeBruyn said. “So, it tests their patience and their willpower, but they stay intense from beginning to end.”

Systems Imagination CEO Yoo sees Devils Invent as “a perfect showcase of ASU’s focus on innovation,” and a space in which students are encouraged to think outside the norm while at the same time learning how to pursue practical solutions.

“Startup companies like ours can bring valuable, real-world experiences and techniques to students in a way that can unleash the talent and inventiveness of these motivated young minds,” Yoo said. “I think this event inspired students to do something meaningful to address the COVID-19 pandemic when it can seem like we are powerless to do so.”

Joe Kullman

Science writer, Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering