Engineering innovations that are improving the efficacy of N95 masks

N95 masks are one of the most important items for healthcare workers in the United States during the pandemic because they provide great antiviral properties, making them one of the best options when it comes to virus protection in high-exposure settings.

They can not only protect against the novel coronavirus, but also against other viruses like the flu, and they have many other uses in other industries because they can filter out a wide variety of particles with a small size, including dust, smoke, and pollen.

This is why, during the pandemic, hospitals and healthcare centers have been needing to buy them in bulk and wholesale. Even though they were once an item easily found for sale in any physical or online store, they’re now difficult to obtain.

Shortages of medical supplies affect not only N95 respirators, but also other items used as PPE (personal protective equipment), including surgical masks, face shields, gloves, gowns, and KN95 masks. Even some of the most popular models of N95 masks, the 3M N95 masks in models like 3M 8210, 3M 8511, and 3M 1860, are hard to find.

These shortages have led to many breakthroughs during this year by scientists and engineers in many fields. Here are some of the biggest innovations that are improving the efficacy of N95 masks.

A self-adherent and transparent N95 masks: the SEEUS95

This prototype aims to solve a lot of different problems N95 masks currently have. First, it’s completely reusable, so that aims to solve the problem of the shortages since N95 masks are disposable face masks.

Then, it’s a completely clear face mask, an idea that came from the problem of people covering their faces all year long, and along with the social distancing rules, this has created problems with social connection between people. This mask allows one to see the mouth and nose while wearing it, and that’s why it’s called SEEUS95.

The mask is also self-adherent, meaning it doesn’t have any ear-loops or head-bands, adhering to the skin of the face using a natural biopolymer called chitosan, used in burn victim patients, so it’s gentle on the skin.

The filters it contains are completely natural, and they include bamboo, silver, silk, and carbon, all environmentally safe and bringing the same filtering efficiency than a regular N95 mask. 

If you’d like to know more, they have a frequently asked questions section on their website.

Using a common domestic device to clean disposable N95 masks

The University of Illinois published a study earlier in the year in which they obtained results from using a device most people have at home to decontaminate N95 masks, aiming to solve the problem with shortages of this item across the United States. The device is an electric cooker, also known as a multi-cooker.

The study found that applying dry heat to the masks inside the device for 50 minutes could completely decontaminate them without it losing their filtering capacities. The two people responsible for this study are civil and environmental engineering professors, and they were inspired by the multiple reports of shortages across the USA of this valuable item. They found that most decontamination processes available could alter the mask’s performance.

To instruct people at home on how to implement the method, they published a video demonstrating the process and clarifying some key points. For example, they explain that the heat has to be dry, so no water or any other liquid, including detergent, soap, disinfectant, or others is necessary. The temperature must also be kept at around 100 degrees Celsius constantly.

A unique way to make N95 masks more efficiently

This news might seem bizarre, but they’re very promising and represent a good solution to some of the biggest problems with N95 masks. In a paper published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society A journal, a physicist explains how to use a cotton candy machine to make N95 masks, a breakthrough that would allow faster and cheaper N95 mask production.

The machine is used to make filters that would have the same filtering capacity as N95 respirators. He uses ordinary plastic obtained from shopping bags and bottles, heats them, and puts them in the machine, which then spins them into a material that resembles cotton candy. The filter material has electrostatic charges added to it, which are then enhanced.

The physicist tested the filter using surgical masks and proved their efficiency, but then decided to create his mask using a 3D printer, in which 3 filters are inserted, proving to have a 95% filtration efficiency.

Recharging N95 masks like you recharge your phone

This experiment and innovation would imply plugging in N95 masks to a power source during the night, just like you do with your phone, and it might become a reality very soon. The principle behind this is that some of the filtering properties from N95 masks come from them having electrostatic charges that are lost with continued use due to the moisture released into the mask, and therefore the mask loses efficiency.

Scientists took this principle and engineered a way to “recharge” filters as a way to make the masks reusable, solving the problem of shortages. Most prototypes use a silicone facepiece in which a rechargeable filter can be inserted. They tested used filters after they “rejuvenated” them with electric jolts, which showed a restoration of the 95% efficiency rate N95 masks are known for.

A couple of prototypes are in development but aren’t available yet to the public.

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