'Zapper’ invention lets Pennsylvania hospital decontaminate many masks

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BETHLEHEM, Pa. (AP & WCN) — With its glowing blue lights in a metal cage, the “bug zapper” evokes summer nights swatting at mosquitoes in the backyard, but it’s meant to zap a much more insidious bug.

The industrial-sized device designed by a team from Lehigh University and St. Luke’s University Health Network uses powerful ultraviolet light to kill the coronavirus, allowing the hospital to decontaminate and re-use N95 masks, which are in short supply because of the pandemic.

The St. Luke’s Sterile Processing Department, or SPD, is the place where all surgical and medical instruments are sent to be meticulously cleaned, sanitized and packaged for reuse. It’s a behind-the-scenes function that is an essential part of the health care system.

“On any given day, we are processing many, many items here at our hospital in Bethlehem,” states Taylor Bennett, St. Luke’s Network Director of Sterile Processing. “But with the current situation, there is an overwhelming need to process our employees’ PPE on a daily basis. We literally have thousands of masks.”

For Dr. Roscher, a light went on – literally and figuratively.

“I had been doing private research about finding ways to decontaminate masks for reuse, and peer-reviewed literature suggested that, in a pandemic, UV-C light could be an acceptable strategy to sterilize masks,” he says. UV-C is a specific range of UV, or ultra-violet, light and has been shown to deactivate viruses and other pathogens by causing changes in their DNA.

Through a mutual contact, Dr. Roscher got in touch with Nelson Tansu, PhD, Lehigh University’s Director and Endowed Chair of its Center for Photonics and Nanoelectronics (CPN). 

“What St. Luke’s was looking for was a high-throughput sterilization system,” said Dr. Tansu. “Together with our two teams, we started a collaborative design process which was completed in record time.”

The two organizations joined forces through a series of Zoom meetings and hundreds of emails, to design, fabricate, install and test the device – all within a matter of two weeks – and all while maintaining social distancing protocols.

The end result: a way to effectively and efficiently sterilize 200 masks every 8 minutes!

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