Throughout the nationwide shortage of masks for medical professionals, causing some to unsafely continue to reuse paper masks, Lake Nona resident Don Conemac saw an opportunity to help.
Conemac, 66, worked for over 30 years in engineering for both the military and private sectors. After learning about the dire need for medical supplies from some friends working at hospitals, Conemac went to work in his garage to invent a device that used UV light to sterilize just about anything COVID-19. He calls it the N95 mask cleaner.
“I use simulations for everything I build,” Conemac says. “There are special optical rods [in the mask cleaner], and when it gets hit with UV, it creates an amplification of that particular wavelength. Since the box is igniting rods at the top and the bottom, the rods increase the flux field.”
Therefore, Conemac says, light can pass in the box in every direction.
Now, what does this all mean to the layman? Conemac’s box essentially looks like a wooden toaster oven with the optical rods serving as a tray. The igniting rods at the top and bottom of the box use the UV light to sterilize everything locked inside when turned on. Its use goes beyond masks as Conemac and his wife, Cherry, even sterilize their groceries inside. He says that even electronics like a phone can go inside and function perfectly fine afterwards.
“I would not recommend that someone try and build [a mask cleaner] unless they did extensive research,” Conemac said, noting the potential dangers of intense UV light for amateurs trying to create something similar.
After serving in the U.S. Army as a radio repairman, Conemac spent more than 20 years in engineering for government defense contracts, where he worked on the famous Star Wars program, helped to develop the GPS systems for Apache helicopters, and worked on Predator drones. He has over 50 approved patents, and in 1997, he won a Discover Innovation award for building the first laser-driven flatscreen television.
It would take years and “millions of dollars” for the box to be approved by the FDA for commercial use. The Conemacs say they just use theirs to keep themselves safe as well as their friends who are currently frontline medical workers.
Dr. Gary Mishkin is an emergency care physician at Santa Rosa Memorial Hospital in California and has been treating patients with COVID-19 for weeks now. He’s known Conemac since childhood, and in the beginning of the pandemic, he lamented to his old friend how hard it was to get new medical protective equipment.
“It’s difficult times in medicine right now for a lot of people for a lot of different reasons,” Dr. Mishkin said. “For me, one of the most frustrating things is watching the news and seeing the people who don’t get it and aren’t wearing masks out in public.”
Dr. Mishkin received a mask cleaning box from Conemac, and he says every day he uses it to sterilize his mask and other items he’s constantly touching.
“Don came up with this really fast, offered it to me, and it adds an extra layer of protection in the process I use to stay safe at home,” Dr. Mishkin said.
Paulette Shank, who works in the anesthesiology department at Osceola Regional Medical Center, was recently brought back to work after elective surgeries in Florida were allowed again. She said that while the hospital will not allow something like Conemac’s box to be used in an official capacity due to it not being FDA approved, it’s something that she can use personally to protect herself.
“Would you not use something because you’re waiting for [FDA approval] in the middle of a pandemic? Even when the evidence supports that it’s effective?” Shank declared.
Don and Cherry Conemac seemed to focus less on the device’s commercial opportunity and instead on its potential to help people they care about.
“The people on the frontlines are really going through a lot,” Cherry lamented.
“They’re the real heroes,” Don added.
Photos Courtesy of Don Conemac