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Coast Guard Academy sets out to find 'best recipe' for 3D printed face masks

New London — Across the country, as people fired up their 3D printers to make face masks in response to the shortage of N95 masks worn by health care workers treating COVID-19 patients, the Coast Guard Academy’s engineering department settled on a different mission: vet some of these designs to find the best one.

Building off the design by New London native Dr. Chris Wiles, the engineering department has tested different kinds of plastics - the plastics found in Legos and water bottles, for example - and tinkered with other design aspects.

The goal is to determine whether one of these 3D printed masks can be compared to the N95, so named because it filters out 95% of the tiny particles the wearer breathes in and out. Wiles, who's in the first year of a four-year anesthesiology residency at the University of Connecticut, said in an earlier interview with The Day that his invention can't replace the N95 mask, and estimated the replaceable, two-layer filter in his mask filters out more than 75% of particles.

In the long term, the hope is that whatever design the engineering faculty finds optimal can be certified by the government for use.

“There are many designs out there for 3D printed masks but none we’re aware of at this time that have been approved in a clinical setting,” said Master Chief Dale McCurry with the academy's engineering department. “We have access to a lot of equipment, 3D printers, various materials, so we decided to take this challenge on as department.”

Last week, they began testing some of the designs in a large lab in McAllister Hall, where engineering classes are taught.

The masks are placed in a glass box pumped with air from a vacuum. Electronic devices known as particle counters, which measure the concentration of particles in the air, are placed in front of and behind the mask. Numbers displayed on the two counters show how well the mask filtering out particles in the air.

In the background, 15 printers hummed away, churning out bright colored masks. Already the academy has printed several hundred masks. There's talk of the cadets wearing them when they return to campus, but given they are government property, there are limits to how they can be distributed.

"Our greatest strength is in the knowledge base," said Cmdr. Michael Plumley, head of the mechanical engineering department at the academy.

He said the idea is to share the design widely so tens of thousands of masks could be printed across the country.

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