Humble Hero

How a humble Tennessee scientist became a worldwide hero during the coronavirus pandemic.

Before the coronavirus pandemic, Dr. Peter Tsai was far from a household name. And, frankly, still isn't. But he definitely should be. Even though he was well-respected as a materials scientist and inventor, very few people have heard of him.

COVID-19 has dragged one of Tsai's inventions into the spotlight. He is the creator of the filter material inside most disposable N95 respirators. As the pandemic worsened, health care workers nationwide needed the masks to stay safe, which means there were shortages and massive price markups. 

The shortage was so dire that it brought Tsai out of retirement to dive head-first into solving the crisis. Since mid-March, Tsai has been a worldwide force on two fronts - finding new ways to sterilize disposable respirators for reuse and rapidly scaling up their production. 

“My invention is just an ordinary invention,” the 68-year-old said humbly in an interview with Knox News. “But because of the need for the respirators, people think it is very important.”

Tsai’s invention is not new. He filed the first patent for the filtration technology back in 1995. His invention gives the masks' filter fabric a permanent electrostatic charge by exposing it to a halo of electricity. Scientists call this an electrical “corona.” Tsai named his process “coronal charging.”

The coincidence between the names is not lost on Tsai. “I use coronal charging to fight coronavirus,” he joked.

Tsai has had a long career in textile manufacturing and engineering. He graduated from what is now National Taipei University of Technology in 1975. He worked for several years in manufacturing before moving to the U.S. in the 1980s to get a doctorate in materials science at the University of Kansas. 

During his research career at the University of Tennessee Knoxville, Tsai developed his filtration technology further while pursuing other projects. He holds 12 U.S. patents in filtration technology and other areas. And a lot more people are alive today courtesy of his inventions than would otherwise have been the case.

While his material and production processes made a huge difference in the world, it wasn’t front-page news. He retired in late 2019. Then you know what happened this year.