The COVID-19 pandemic has brought to the United States a problem we, like the rest of the world, weren’t prepared for, which is a shortage of medical supplies. A medical emergency like this was bound to come with the collapse of the healthcare facilities and to come with an increased demand for certain supplies that weren’t previously needed in such large amounts.
Without a doubt, the most critical item that became scarce was the N95 respirator, considered to be the best face mask for protection against this new virus. With shortages happening across the nation, the race to find either a reusable or a sterilization process for N95 masks started. Today, we’ll talk about one of the latest breakthroughs in the development of a reusable N95 mask from the University of Dayton in Ohio.
AIIMM: a startup from Dayton, Ohio that can solve a big problem with N95 masks
A big problem with N95 masks is the fact that they’re disposable face masks. They can be used for 8 to 12 hours, and then need to be discarded. At the moment, no reusable N95 mask has been created and put on the market, and neither has a cleaning and sterilizing process for disposable N95 masks. This accentuates the problem of shortages and scarcity of this product, and the achievement of a reusable N95 mask would be the best solution to it.
But, a startup from the University of Dayton Research Institute gives hope in the search for a solution to this problem. A self-disinfecting N95 mask is a concept these scientists are developing, and have created a campaign to commercialize it already. This project comes from battery scientist Luis Estevez, who developed an antiviral technology and applied it to a face mask.
With more layers of defense, the mask is more durable and protective, making it reusable and cleanable. This is destined to solve the shortage problem in N95 respirators, which has been present since the first days of the pandemic. Estevez, with support from the Office of Technology and Entrepreneurial Partnerships from the University of Dayton, established a startup called Advanced & Innovative Multifunctional Materials LLC (AIMM).
AIMM will focus on advancing the technology from Estevez’s research to create prototypes. Once developed, they are planned to be tested and certified, as well as regulated by the appropriate institutions. After this, Estevez wants to license his mask with a medical equipment company, and partner with them to manufacture them in mass.
While some people have been facing the situation of the shortages by treating N95 masks with steam or hydrogen peroxide, these are procedures that can affect the activity of the face mask. These masks have an electrostatic charge to help with breathability and still be able to trap particles like dust, smoke, or viruses like the flu, which are very small. When the mask gets wet, these charges are lost, and the filtering properties decrease.
In this new model created by Estevez, he adds another layer of biocidal silver nanomaterial to the exterior of the respirator. This material is used in medical products for its antimicrobial properties, killing microorganisms in contact with it. This makes the mask more durable as well as more protective, allowing users to wear them for more than 12 hours.
While this new technology and face mask design is still waiting for tests, certifications, and regulations, as well as all the funding required to continue to develop and manufacture it, it’s another great breakthrough to find solutions to the pandemic’s biggest problems.
Why are N95 respirators disposable, and why are they scarce?
N95 masks, or N95 respirators, are a very specific type of disposable face mask. Unlike surgical or medical face masks, they are considered a great option for virus protection in high-risk situations, like healthcare settings. The name N95 comes from a classification of respirators made by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, or NIOSH, an institution in charge of preventing work-related injuries or illnesses in the USA.
All respirators sold as N95 must be approved by them to make sure they meet the filtration standards. To be considered an N95 mask, the respirator must have a minimum particulate filtration efficacy of 95% and be non-resistant to oil. This way, N95 masks can effectively filter 95% of non-oil based airborne particles, which includes the coronavirus.
But, unfortunately, N95 masks are made with a material that is not very durable, and also very scarce, as it’s difficult to produce. This non-woven material, made out of polypropylene, is also known as melt-blown material, and it’s a fabric that contains many little holes where particles get trapped. Not many factories produce it, and the ones that do have been working at full capacity to meet the needs of the pandemic, but shortages are still happening.
Another aspect that doesn’t help the situation is the fact that disposable N95 masks can only be used for 8 to 12 hours, as the materials inside the mask start to degrade and get damaged, lowering the respirator’s ability to protect the user. While most healthcare workers and first responders have been trying to make the most use out of the supplies they get, N95 masks are ideally made to be discarded after every use.
For the time being, we must use disposable and reusable cloth masks. You can find many options for sale online, including 3M N95 masks like the 3M 8210 and 3M 8511, as well as face shields and KN95 masks. You can buy them in wholesale or in bulk, and even in a smaller size for kids, who are not protected with adult-sized face masks. Remember to stay protected.