Sensors for Detecting COVID-19 Viral Particles Seeping Inside N95 Masks & Surging in Patient Rooms

    By Kathleen Berger, Executive Producer for Science & Technology

    Health care workers are at risk when treating patients hospitalized with COVID-19. Combining N95 face masks with face shields offer protection, but an added solution is provided by the Aerosol and Air Quality Research Laboratory in the Center for Aerosol Science and Engineering at Washington University in St. Louis. It’s a high-quality particulate matter sensor that’s modified to be worn by Washington University physicians treating COVID-19 patients. 

    “I can see the data, whatever the sensor is reading, on the dashboard,” said Shruti Choudhary, graduate student.

    The sensors let physicians know if there is a concentration of particles in a patient’s room. A manager can oversee the dashboard in real time. Currently, the sensor can’t determine the types of particles, but emissions in a COVID-19 patient’s room would likely be respiratory emissions in the form of droplets and aerosols with COVID-19 viral particles.  

    Choudhary is working on miniaturizing the sensors so they can be an added featured for N95 face masks worn by health care workers. 

    “The physician is wearing a mask. I really want to know what’s happening inside that mask because that’s what the physician is really inhaling,” said Pratim Biswas, PhD, principal investigator of the Aerosol and Air Quality Research Laboratory. The Lucy & Stanley Lopata Professor in the McKelvey School of Engineering oversees the state-of-the-art Center for Aerosol Science and Engineering at the McKelvey School of Engineering.

    “So we want to really miniaturize this and put this sensor inside the mask,” said Biswas. “If the mask is not operating efficiently I will immediately get a signal.” 

    “It works on the principal of light scattering, so I should be able to make it as small as possible,” said Choudhary.

    And the lab is taking the next step towards engineering the sensor to specifically detect COVID-19 viral particles. 

    “We want to tell which fraction of them are the viral particles of the virus. And not only that, but if the virus is also active, ” said Biswas. 

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