- Northwestern University researchers Haiyue Huang and Hun Park examine reusable self-sanitizing masks.
- Northwestern University
- Researchers at Northwestern University are trying to develop an insert for existing masks that would deactivate viruses before they were airborne.
- Funding for the project came from a $200,000 Rapid Response Research grant from the National Science Foundation.
- The goal is “to make an accessory loaded with well-known antiviral chemicals – such as acids and metal ions like copper – that can be stuck onto existing masks,” said lead scientist Jiaxing Huang.
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The availability of protective masks has been on nearly everyone’s mind as the novel coronavirus pandemic expands across the globe. And because N95 masks are often used only once, hospitals require a near-endless supply.
In March, the National Science Foundation awarded a $200,000 Rapid Response Research grant to scientists at Northwestern University who are working on a self-sanitizing face mask that would deactivate viruses on contact.
They’re one of a dozen teams that received RAPID grants related to COVID-19, after Congress added $75 million to the program’s budget for research related to the novel coronavirus.
Northwestern University: How the self-sanitizing mask works
Led by Jiaxing Huang, materials professor at Northwestern’s McCormick School of Engineering, the scientists are developing an “accessory” embedded with virus-killing agents. It would attach to an existing mask and render virus particles inert before they make contact with the air.
The device could be a sheet or sticker that could be wrapped or glued to the outside of a mask.
- Researchers Haiyue Huang (right) and Hun Park at Northwestern University’s McCormick School of Engineering.
- Courtesy of Northwestern University
“Our main idea is to make an accessory loaded with well-known antiviral chemicals – such as acids and metal ions like copper – that can be stuck onto existing masks,” Huang told Business Insider. “To keep cost at a minimum, we want this to be a drop-in solution that would not disrupt current manufacturing.”
While the insert could be used by healthcare workers who are sick, more likely it would be used by a patient: When they cough or exhale, the chemical sticker on their mask would theoretically neutralize virus particles before they were inhaled by staff.
“If this works, it should make patients less infectious and help to cut down the source of spread,” Huang said.
The main obstacle, he added, is designing something that would only activate “during exhale but not during inhale,” because breathing in antibacterial chemicals could cause further health problems.
Northwestern University: Making masks reusable would curb the shortage medical workers are facing
The masks currently worn by patients still allow viral droplets to escape when they cough, sneeze, or even speak. N95 masks provide more protection for medical staff, but typically aren’t worn by patients.
The researchers want their new attachment to work with with any mask, which could significantly cut down the number required and potentially eliminate the need for N95 masks altogether. Right now shortages are so severe that some healthcare workers have turned to making their own or pleading for mask donations on social media.
- N95 respiration masks at a 3M laboratory.
- Reuters/Nicholas Pfosi
Designated “essential researchers” during Illinois’ shelter-in-place order, the team has been working nonstop on a solution. But it may be some time before the drop-in attachments find their way into hospitals.
Huang said his lab is only developing a proof-of-concept “to see if the loaded molecules are indeed released by exhaled droplets but not during inhalation.” And they’re relying on simulating breathing, not human subjects. If those initial tests are successful, they’ll work with a collaborator who can do COVID-19-related tests.
He doesn’t have a timeline yet for clinical trials, or for when the inserts might be tested specifically against the novel coronavirus. But he praised the NSF for funding promising research in the battle against pandemics.
The goal, Huang said, is “to rally researchers in physical science and engineering to proactively study these problems, formulate hypotheses, and design solutions.”