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Mercer School of Engineering creates prototype for reusable N95 face mask

Students and professors are collaborating to use 3D printing and laser cutting technology to create new prototypes.

MACON, Ga. — There's a nationwide shortage of face masks, and doctors and nurses need them now more than ever to keep themselves healthy.

Mercer University's School of Engineering is stepping up to help.

Dr. Joanna Thomas is an assistant professor of biochemical engineering and Jacob Sokolove is a senior engineering major at Mercer. Both are part of the team that's working on creating a reusable surgical mask to help local healthcare providers.

"We've been iterating through prototypes the last couple of days and I think we're basically one or two away from having something we're ready to test," says Dr. Thomas. 

Dr. Thomas says she began printing copies of the mask and analyzing its materials with the help of collaborator Dr. David Miller, associate professor of engineering technology at Pittsburgh State University in Kansas, but the idea started with Macon dentist and Mercer alum Dr. Amber Lawson.

She heard from the Georgia Dental Association's COVID-19 task force about a mask that could be sealed using dental materials. She contacted Mercer about producing 3D-printed masks, and engineering students and professors got to work.

"We’re in unprecedented times. 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," said Lawson in a Mercer press release.

Basically, the model the engineering school has created is two pieces of plastic with a filter in the middle. The plastic can be sanitized, and the filter can be replaced. 

Sokolove is also making face shields.

"It's focused on protecting against like coughing and sneezing and things like that," says Sokolove. 

The pair says the most important part is making sure that the masks and shields "pass the test" to keep doctors and nurses safe. Dr. Thomas expects testing to take place Friday at a local hospital.

Once approved, Mercer engineering will share the models so that other people can help make personal protective equipment, too.

"We're happy to do this. It's stuff we enjoy doing, and it's stuff that once we get done, we will be very well-prepared with in the future," says Sokolove. 

Dr. Thomas says right now, the mask-making process is somewhat slow. It takes about half a day to print and assemble just one.

Sokolove says the school can print about 15 face shields every three hours.

If the prototype passes testing and is approved for medical use, they hope to have about 15 masks made this weekend. They're also working a faster way to produce the masks than 3D printing. One possibility is vacuum-forming the masks.

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