By Andrew Myers

John Xu is a research scientist in the lab of mechanical engineer Friedrich “Fritz” Prinz, where the two are known for their work on creating fuel cells for next-generation cars. When the novel coronavirus struck, they looked for ways their deep understanding of electrochemical processes might be useful against the pandemic. Their contribution is a new type of protective face mask that extracts and concentrates oxygen from the air to avoid the considerable side effects of oxygen deficiency that can accompany prolonged N95 mask use while preventing the spread of the virus.

Xu, who received his PhD in Mechanical Engineering in 2016, spoke to us about their work. Excerpts follow:

What problem did you set out to solve?

We’ve all become familiar with the value of surgical face masks in both preventing infection or, in the case of an already infected person, in preventing further spread of the disease. The masks essentially filter the air coming in and out of the lungs, trapping the virus and other particles in its mesh. Through the COVID-19 crisis, many have become familiar with N95 masks, which filter out 95 percent or more of small particulate matter from the air – including the virus.

But in filtering those particles, N95 masks can also make it harder to breathe. Based on literature and confirmed by our measurements, N95 masks are estimated to reduce oxygen intake by anywhere from 5 percent to 20 percent. That’s significant, even for a healthy person. It can cause dizziness and lightheadedness. For healthy people, these side effects are temporary and usually not an issue. But if you are severely ill and are continuously wearing an N95 mask for several hours at a time, it can damage the lungs. For a patient in respiratory distress, it can even be life threatening.

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