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St. Luke’s, Lehigh University collaboration leads to invention that sterilizes masks

The COVID-19 pandemic has given rise to a feat of ingenuity – the invention of the “Bug Zapper” to sterilize masks. As hospitals and other front-line organizations jumped to secure large quantities of life-saving supplies and personal protective equipment (PPE), there has also been the need to identify quicker, more efficient ways to clean and sterilize those items, particularly N95 masks. St. Luke’s University Health Network anesthesiologist Dr. Christopher Roscher anticipated the need and an idea began to form.

“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 said. Through a mutual contact, Roscher got in touch with Nelson Tansu, Lehigh University’s director and endowed chair of its Center for Photonics and Nanoelectronics (CPN). The two organizations joined forces 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 eight minutes. The unit, engineered by Lehigh students and staff and assembled at St. Luke’s by biomedical engineer Jay Johnson, has been affectionally named the “Bug Zapper” not only due to its appearance, but due to its COVID-killing properties.

“It is incredible that this project moved at such a rapid speed,” remarked Tansu. “I have been in the engineering and innovations world for 20-plus years and this is definitely ‘record speed.’ It wouldn’t have happened so quickly without all the members of our team working together.”