This year has brought a new normal to our lives. Wearing face masks is now part of our daily lives, and social distancing rules are changing the way we socialize with each other. Online communication and work are now becoming more prominent, and we’re making use of the ever-growing technologies to accommodate this new reality as best as possible.

N95 masks, which have been without a doubt at the center of discussion during the year, are disposable face masks that are considered to be the best one for virus protection at the moment. This is why healthcare workers and first responders are the only ones that should use them and are the ones who are most affected by the shortages of this product.

For this reason, methods for cleaning and sterilizing N95 masks have been in development and represent a priority for research at the moment. Here, we bring you a plant-based option for cleaning N95 masks.

A plant-based alternative for cleaning N95 masks

On the race for finding a way to make N95 masks reusable, either by designing a reusable one or by developing a way to sterilize disposable ones while preserving their filtering properties. On the latter, most procedures are based on synthetic solutions and mechanical procedures, and there were no plant-based centered methods until this new project was developed.

For it, engineers thought of a way to spray a plant-based material in the form of extremely thin wires, that could potentially be used to disinfect and sterilize not only N95 masks, but also other devices like the ones that harvest energy, and could even be used in the creation of human organs.

Methylcellulose, a plastic material that comes from plant cellulose, is a renewable raw material that can be sprayed onto many different objects, including 3D-printed objects, electronics, plants, and others. The study was published in the journal Materials Horizons, and according to them, it could be the first step towards 3D-printed organs.

These statements come from Jonathan P. Singer, the senior author who is the assistant professor in the Department of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering at Rutgers University New Brunswick’s School of Engineering. In the study, he says: “In the nearer term, N95 masks are in demand as personal protective equipment during the COVID-19 pandemic, and our spray method could add another level of capture to make filters more effective.”

The material that would be sprayed is in the form of nanowires, which have many applications both in nature and in human-made procedures. They can be found in the cilia from our respiratory tracts, and are also used in small energy harvesters. Nanowires aren’t new, they are used to make cotton candy. But, the innovation comes from the possibility to spray them. The physics to create such sprays comes from the collaboration between Singer’s Hybrid Micro/Nanomanufacturing Laboratory and the engineers from Binghamton University. The idea is to create what they call “forests” of methylcellulose nanowires that could coat objects, including N95 masks.

N95 masks, and why they’re currently not cleanable or reusable

N95 masks are a type of respirator that is part of the United States’ respirator classification. Every country has a rating system and standards for respirators since these are part of the personal protective equipment (PPE) required in several workplaces. These would be settings in which particles known as respiratory hazards are present.

When exposed to persistently and during prolonged periods, these particles can lead to severe health issues in workers, such as lung cancer. This is why certain work settings require the use of respirators. For this, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) has a classification system for respirators that groups them according to their resistance to oil and their minimum particulate filtration efficacy.

In that classification, N95 masks would be those that aren’t resistant to oil, and that can filter out at least 95% of all airborne particles in the air. This makes them effective for workplaces with exposure to particles such as dust, coal smoke, or bioaerosols like the flu virus and other types of microorganisms. For this reason, N95 masks are widely used in mining, construction, and in some instances, in healthcare centers.

N95 masks are made of a material called melt-blown fabric, which is produced from polypropylene using thermic and mechanical procedures. The process results in a fabric with multiple small holes in which particles get trapped, therefore preventing their inhalation, so the fabric is used for the filter of the masks.

This raw material is scarce around the world, and the reason for this is the difficulty of its production. Factories that produce it are limited and can’t increase production to meet the needs of the pandemic. This, along with other factors, has contributed to the ongoing shortage of N95 masks.

It doesn’t help that the material is also not very durable, which is the reason that N95 masks are disposable face masks, just like surgical or medical ones, and can only be used for 8 to 12 hours. Cleaning processes can also easily damage the mask’s filter and eliminate its antiviral properties, and that’s why finding a way to make them reusable is a big goal experts have been working towards.

To implement these new cleaning procedures, it is always best to use very durable and high-quality N95 masks, like the 3M N95 masks 3M 8210 and 3M 8511, which can be found for sale to buy in bulk or wholesale easily online.

Remember that anyone who uses any type of face covering is doing their part to help their community, including face shields, KN95 masks, or any type of reusable or disposable face mask. Even kids need to cover up using face masks in a smaller size.

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