The team’s mechanical test fixture that supports reuse testing, including donning cycles, speed, and mask displacement. (Credit: Adam Hammond-Clements)

A team at Sandia National Laboratories has developed a faster and more comprehensive way of testing personal protective equipment, or PPE. The basic principle: modeling a device to fit the human form and human behavior.

When COVID-19 hit, PPE testing became an urgent need. In March 2020, when the country went into lockdown, many people turned to Sandia for PPE testing support. They were trying to bring new masks to the market, provide quality assurance for imported masks and vet cleaning processes for reuse of single-use PPE.

They started by creating a model of a human face that could be loaded into a commercial filter test system. Once the mask is affixed, the entire head is put in an airtight box that is then placed in the machine and tested, allowing for a more natural flow of air over the mask and what they believe is a more realistic picture of mask performance.

The mechanical engineers on the team then took things one step further to help address the reuse of PPE, something there is currently no testing standard for. They developed the chamber version to automate donning and doffing (the putting on and taking off an item) to test respirator function over time, a predominant factor in wear on a mask. It also mimics how a mask is set on the face and shows you any gaps that air and particles can get past.