Mercer’s School of Engineering is developing a prototype for a reusable surgical mask to distribute to local healthcare providers. The university has plans for an initial run of 15 by the end of the week with materials on hand to make as many as 150.
With the exception of a small high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filter that is clipped at the front of the mask and must be replaced, the masks are made of a durable polypropylene-like material and are intended to be sanitized and reused.
The project was initiated by Macon dentist Dr. Amber Lawson, a 2002 graduate of Mercer’s College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. She contacted University officials earlier this week about producing a 3D-printed mask that she learned about while serving on the Georgia Dental Association’s COVID-19 Task Force.
Cumming orthodontist Dr. Mark Causey shared with Dr. Lawson and other task force members a design for a mask that could be sealed using dental materials, creating an option for healthcare providers in areas with a shortage of N95 masks.
“We’re in unprecedented times,” said Dr. Lawson. “We’re all trying to help each other, and our healthcare providers are on the front lines. We have to work together to do anything we can to try to give them confidence that they are protected so they can continue to look out for their patients and our communities.”
Seeking someone in Macon to test the materials and produce the masks for local providers, Dr. Lawson was put in contact with Dr. Joanna Thomas, assistant professor of biomedical engineering, and Dr. Anthony Choi, professor of electrical and computer engineering, at Mercer.
“It’s a trying time and challenging for a lot of people, especially our medical professionals,” said Dr. Thomas. “When the opportunity presented itself to try to help in just a small way, I say let’s go for it and see what we can come up with.”
Upon receiving the design, Dr. Thomas immediately began printing copies of the mask and analyzing its materials and components with the help of collaborator Dr. David Miller, associate professor of engineering technology at Pittsburg State University in Kansas.
Dr. Thomas has been overseeing various iterations of the mask while Dr. Miller makes adjustments to the design file in AutoCAD computer-aided design software based on the results of each 3D-printed copy.
Concurrently, engineering students from Mercer’s Robotics Club, led by Jacob Sokolove and overseen by Dr. Choi, have been working to devise a faster way to produce the masks than 3D printing. One possibility is vacuum-forming the masks. Trial runs using one of Dr. Thomas’ 3D-printed prototypes as the mold have proven promising. Students are also using Mercer’s FDM (fused deposition modeling) printers to build face shields with an open-source file from Prusa, a leading maker of 3D printers.
Since the outbreak of the new coronavirus, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) has issued guidelines for healthcare providers in light of critical PPE shortages across the country. These guidelines include the use of “homemade” masks as a “last resort” in settings where N95 masks are not available.