The N95 mask shortage that exacerbated the COVID-19 pandemic in 2020 won’t be repeated if a partnership between university researchers and industry succeeds.
Co-led by the University of Michigan, the project aims to develop better respirators with new manufacturing processes that can be ramped up on demand, protecting both health care workers and the public.
Launched with $3 million in funding from the American Rescue Plan Act, awarded by the U.S. Department of Commerce’s National Institutes of Standards and Technology, the partnership includes DemeTECH Corp., Penn State Behrend and Hills Inc.
It is co-led by America Makes, which is managed by the National Center for Defense Manufacturing and Machining and is a member of Manufacturing USA.
As hospitals struggled to source personal protective equipment in 2020, the domestic market went into action — buying large machinery, hiring workers and beginning production on as many N95 respirators and surgical masks as possible to try to keep up with the demand. DemeTECH was part of this movement.
Meanwhile, engineering researchers at U-M tried to find solutions for the shortages in N95 masks at Michigan Medicine.
“Although we were not able to bring N95 manufacturing to Ann Arbor, we generated ideas for local and cost-effective manufacturing of better N95 filtration materials and manufacturing systems for innovative N95 designs,” said Albert Shih, professor of mechanical engineering and biomedical engineering, whose lab is coordinating this project. “Our partnership is pursuing these solutions in preparation for the next public health emergency.”
Now, with global supply chains open again, domestic companies struggle to compete with the lower prices of respirators and masks produced abroad, causing factories to shut down in the United States.
These N95s and masks are made with the same design and materials from decades ago. Without cost-effective methods for manufacturing new mask designs, materials and masks developed since 2020 won’t make it to market.
“The key is to create innovative N95 production machines and processes to make new and better designs cost-competitive with imported respirators,” Shih said.
During the height of N95-making in the U.S., a choke point in production was the lack of meltblown material, a nonwoven, plastic filtration material that can stop even virus-sized aerosols with its network of microscale fibers charged with static electricity.
“The system we are developing includes a small machine that can manufacture the meltblown material, ensuring that it is always available and enabling innovations in new filtration materials,” said Luis Arguello Jr., president of DemeTECH.
“The meltblown material will then be assembled into N95 respirators or masks using the same small inline machine. This way, we can have production lines ready to turn on when demand arises and output respirators quickly.”
This phase of the project will demonstrate the production line with conventional N95 designs. In future work, the team intends to enable the production of N95s with innovative designs and materials, including more sustainable materials.
“The size of the meltblown machine is small, which is ideal to adjust for new materials and N95 design,” Shih said. “After demonstrating the technology, we hope to pursue a second phase of this project, addressing key issues — including cost, fit and filtration efficiency — for new N95 designs and new materials.”
The project integrates new machinery from Hills Inc. and DemeTECH along with advances in material research and modeling from U-M and Penn State engineers to create a new N95 production system.