STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:
We called the man whose scientific research made possible the N95 mask, considered the safest mask for the pandemic.
PETER TSAI: I developed the technology in 1992.
RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Peter Tsai invented the special filters on the masks that block out viral particles.
TSAI: My invention was to just improve the air filter. This is just a very convenient invention, not a very special invention.
MARTIN: The mask is special, though, and hospitals are running out, so Tsai came out of retirement.
TSAI: Researchers - they call me and are sending me emails.
INSKEEP: Hundreds of emails, says Janis Terpenny of the University of Tennessee, who asked Tsai to help solve a problem.
JANIS TERPENNY: How could the masks be cleaned and sterilized and reused?
MARTIN: N95s are designed for one-time use.
TSAI: You know, you cannot use alcohol to sterilize the masks.
MARTIN: So Tsai is studying other ways to disinfect this technology.
INSKEEP: To colleagues like Maha Krishnamurthy, he's a rock star.
MAHA KRISHNAMURTHY: I told Peter, you seem to be the man of the hour. And he said, no, I'm man of the minute.
INSKEEP: Not that Tsai is seeking attention.
TSAI: I did not expect to be (laughter) popular. I just want to help people, and I just do my job.
INSKEEP: A job he's still doing in this crisis.
(SOUNDBITE OF SOULAR ORDER'S "DOWNFALL")
NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.