Several UC Riverside professors are examining ways to improve sterilization of surgical masks that can be reused amid supply constraints in the coronavirus emergency, university officials said Monday.

Mechanical engineering professor Lorenzo Mangolini, along with bioengineering professors Justin Chartron and Joshua Morgan, are conducting research to identify whether low-temperature plasmas, or ionized gases, may be effective in cleansing masks that then can be worn multiple times.

The trio, with the help of a few doctoral students, tested the practice using E. coli bacteria, intentionally applying it to masks, which were then exposed to low-temp plasma for several minutes. According to UCR, the masks were properly sterilized, removing all traces of the pathogen.

Surgical masks and N95 respirators are composed of polymer fibers that do not respond to standard sterilization techniques, such as UV light streaming or “autoclave,” which relies on high-temperature permeation.

“Low-temperature plasmas generate a broad range of bacteria- and virus-killing properties, while the temperature remains close to room temperature,” according to a UCR statement.

The next stage of research will entail contaminating masks with severe acute respiratory syndrome — SARS — pathogens, which are of the same origin as COVID-19, and determining whether the low-temp plasma purification is effective, officials said.

“The investigators envision developing a small, inexpensive and potentially portable instrument that can be used by hospitals and clinics to routinely disinfect their masks,” according to the university.

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