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EVANSTON, Ill. — One reason hospital staff is at an increased risk of becoming infected is due to lack of protective gear. Necessity is the mother of invention as Northwestern is now 3D printing its own masks to provide a shield from viral droplets that cause COVID-19.

Nano science is Dr. Chad Mirkin’s specialty. The Northwestern University researcher has spent decades developing miniature structures so tiny and stealth some can cross the blood-brain barrier to destroy cancer cells. but this project strayed from that path – the original model standing tall at 13-feet, it can spit out an object the size of an adult human in a matter of hours.

“For us it was a way to help but also a way to show the world this is not pie-in-the-sky stuff anymore we have ability to manufacture things that are important and in this case where people need things in a crisis this is the perfect application of 3D printing,” Mirkin said.

Mirkin and his team put a second-generation version of the printer, an 8-foot model, to work last week.

“Literally last week a co-worker, a guy named David Walker, looked at this and said hey we could really use our printer to impact the COVID crisis by printing tools and equipment that hospitals are going to need,” Mirkin said.

One of the things they are printing are plastic face shields. 

“Here’s a face mask printed with our printer and we can crank out with current instrument about a thousand of these a day we’re going to be building new printers that allow us 2,000 a day and those will be up and online in a few weeks,” Mirkin said.

Mirkin says his team is running prototypes in multiple shifts – tweaking specs and testing the machine he says can do the work of 200 conventional 3d printers.

“We’re focusing on things the smaller printers just won’t have the throughput to deal with that includes shields goggles and even parts of respirators,” he said. 

 He said they want to be ready when the need is there and they know that the need is coming. 

At the end of the day, regulation is going to impact how quickly they can get their face shields into the hands and on the heads of those who need them most. 

The team is working with local hospitals and Harvard Mass General Hospital to figure out what healthcare workers can use and what they can’t.