Long-time AFS member and supporter Peter Tsai has recently received international attention for coming out of retirement to join the battle against Covid-19. As the inventor of the synthetic fabric used to make the N95 mask that is critical in protecting front-line healthcare workers and stemming the spread of coronavirus, Peter started receiving a barrage of requests in mid-March for his knowledge about the nonwoven electrostatically charged material.
With a massive global shortage of the N95 masks, scientists, engineers and clinicians primarily wanted to know: Can the material be sterilized and reused? – and – How can production be scaled up to meet demand? With a willing and curious spirit that has always defined his signature approach, Peter didn’t hesitate to leave the comforts of retirement to help answer these questions. He started working 20 hours a day and even built a lab in his own home to test his ideas.
According to his hometown newspaper, the Knoxville News Sentinel, Peter filed the first patent for the filtration technology in 1992 (the technology was patented in 1995). “His invention gives the masks’ filter fabric a permanent electrostatic charge by exposing it to a halo of electricity,” the article explained. “Scientists call this an electrical ‘corona.’ Tsai named his process ‘coronal charging.’ The irony of the name is not lost on Tsai. ‘I use coronal charging to fight coronavirus,’ he joked.”
“I felt I need to help the health workers,” Peter told Sanjay Gupta’s “Coronavirus: Fact vs. Fiction” podcast. “You know, they put their lives at risk. What I know can help them.”
A native of Taiwan, Peter moved to the United States in 1981 to earn his Ph.D. in materials science at Kansas State University. He then began teaching at the University of Tennessee as a professor in the Department of Material Science and Engineering, where he worked until his retirement in 2019. It was at UT that he led a team attempting to develop electrostatic filtration technology and ultimately filed a patent for his invention.
Peter Tsai joined AFS as a member in 1991 and during his membership was a regular presenter at AFS annual conferences. He served on the AFS Board of Directors from 2008 to 2011 and was a judge of student posters for many years. He was named a Fellow Member in 2011 and has continued to support AFS with educational articles, conference presentations and serving as Chair of the 2013 Fall Conference.
We couldn’t be prouder of Peter and the contributions he is making – and has made throughout his career – to the field of air filter media and to the benefits of humankind.
“If I can have this opportunity to help the community, then it will be a good memory for the rest of my life,” Peter told the Washington Post. “I’m happy to do it.”
Keep reading about Peter and his career here in these additional media stories from around the world:
USA Today/Knoxville News Sentinel: How a humble Tennessee scientist became a worldwide hero amid coronavirus pandemic
NPR Morning Edition: N95 Mask Shortage Brings Inventor Out Of Retirement In Search Of Safe Reuse Method
Prisa, Madrid Live Radio: Is it possible to reuse an N95 mask? Its creator explains it
WVLT-TV, Knox County: Knox County honors researcher for developing N95 mask filtration
University of Tennessee College of Engineering: The Man Behind the Mask