N95 masks prepared for decontamination. Credit: Courtesy of Battelle

Research done with the help of Ohio State alumni at a science and technology company may help address the nationwide shortage of N95 surgical masks by making them reusable.

Battelle, based in Columbus, Ohio, announced in a press release Saturday that it began manufacturing machines capable of sterilizing used N95 masks — the masks currently used by medical personnel treating COVID-19 patients — in order to aid hospitals across the country facing limited supplies.

Ohio State alumna Hiba Shamma, a Battelle microbiologist working on the N95 mask sterilization project, said in an email that although research into the technology began in 2015, project expansion happened only recently.

“They didn’t start building the chambers and upscaling this study until last week,” Shamma said.

By using hydrogen peroxide vapor, Battelle’s machines can sterilize up to 80,000 N95 masks each day, with each mask able to be safely resterilized up to 20 times, according to the press release. Battelle initially received FDA approval to sterilize a limited capacity of 10,000 masks per day, but pressure from Gov. Mike DeWine, as well as an expedited review process, resulted in full FDA approval late Sunday.

“It’s not going to solve every single problem,” DeWine said in a press conference Monday. “We know it’s not going to stop the surge coming at us, but it is going to help and has the ability to help here, Ohio, and has the ability to help across the country.”

At the time of publication, the United States had 238,820 confirmed cases of COVID-19 with 5,758 deaths, according to Johns Hopkins University — making it the nation with the highest number of cases in the world.

Ohio had 2,902 confirmed COVID-19 cases with 802 hospitalizations and 81 deaths at the time of publication, according to the Ohio Department of Health website.

The Wexner Medical Center at Ohio State, which has been working with Battelle on developing new COVID-19 tests, signed an agreement with Battelle almost immediately after the company received FDA approval, Hal Mueller, chief supply chain officer for the medical center, said.

“As of Monday, we’ve started our process of reclaiming masks and routing them to Battelle,” Mueller said.

Mueller said the medical center currently has more than 40,000 N95 masks and uses about 1,200 each day. In preparation for a surge of COVID-19 cases, Mueller said the medical center is focusing on using resterilized masks as much as possible.

“Our hope that we’ll get up to, in the near term, at least half of our masks will be resterilized and with the objective to get to approximately 80 percent being resterilized once we get into a steady-state mode,” Mueller said.

Lewis Von Thaer, president and CEO of Battelle and Ohio State Board of Trustees member, said in a press conference Monday that the company is sending the machines to areas most impacted by the virus, including New York, Seattle, Washington, Chicago, Illinois and Washington, D.C.

Battelle also has machines in West Jefferson, Ohio, where Shamma said researchers have been training for widespread use. A team of engineers, chemists and microbiologists — including Shamma — left for New York Tuesday and will work at the machine site for two weeks before another Battelle team takes their place.

“We will be the first team testing this new technology off of Battelle campus,” Shamma said.

Shamma said helping maintain mask supplies and other personal protective equipment for health care professionals is crucial to addressing the pandemic.

“To keep our citizens healthy, we need our healthcare workers and first responders to remain healthy as well, and without the use of decontaminated masks, that wouldn’t be possible,” she said.