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Sunday, December 10, 2023

5 Weird Concepts to (Theoretically) Supercharge Mask Fabrics

Like a bunch of amateur bandits planning our first bank robbery, in the early days of the pandemic we struggled with the question of whether or not to cover our faces. Some officials insisted we should; others said the opposite. By early April public health experts more or less reached a consensus: Wearing masks helps limit the spread of coronavirus. But, they also agreed, you shouldn't get too comfy behind the mask you made from your pillowcase. Basic face coverings do little to stop the virus from coming in; they're mostly useful for helping to keep infected people from breathing the virus out. N95 masks, a k a respirators, do a better job of intercepting incoming viruses. But once they do, the masks themselves can become infected. That's why, back in normal times, they were supposed to be used just once.

Normal times, of course, are long gone. In the Covid-19 era, we need better facial defenses. So engineers, researchers, and entrepreneurs from Israel to Hong Kong are hustling to bring us the next generation of face protection: masks that not only capture but kill incoming viruses.

Here are some of the most intriguing options—but buyer beware. While all of the research projects and products here appear to be based on legit science, none has been tested against coronavirus. The US Food and Drug Administration is in charge of approving medical devices including masks, and any that are said to have antiviral properties need the agency's thumbs-up before they can be sold to US customers. So far, the FDA says, it's not aware of any legit mask intended to neutralize the virus. Bottom line: Face covering or no, washing your hands and keeping your distance from others remains crucial to staying healthy.

Cutting Salt

Hyo-Jick Choi, a University of Alberta biomedical engineer, saw the need for better masks back in the days of the SARS epidemic, so he started working on a salt-based antiviral coating that could be applied to face coverings. When droplets of saliva or mucus containing the virus hit the mask, the water in them dissolves the salt, like sugar in tea. As the water evaporates, the salt recrystallizes. As the sodium chloride crystals grow, they sprout sharp edges, which, the thinking goes, cut into the walls of the virus cells like a knife slashing into balloons.

When Can I Get One?

Choi hopes to bring the coating out of the lab and into the real world in a year or so.

Zinc Zap

Israeli startup Sonovia created tech—derived from research done at Israel's Bar-Ilan University aimed at reducing disease spread in hospitals—that uses ultrasonic waves to mechanically insert nanoparticles of zinc oxide into textiles, including masks. The particles give off ions that the company says interact with the protein envelope surrounding the virus, deactivating it.

When Can I Get One?

Sonovia says it has distributed hundreds to hospitals in Germany and Israel and hopes to apply the tech to hazmat suits and other protective gear. The company is seeking funding for commercial-scale production.

Nanodiamond Neutralizers

Master Dynamic, an engineering company in Hong Kong, is looking to insert nanoscale particles of lab-grown diamonds into masks. The company claims its specially created nanodiamonds can bind to the virus's envelope, disabling its ability to replicate.

When Can I Get One?

Master Dynamic hopes “optimistically” to get the masks to market this year. It expects them to be affordable for most consumers—nanodiamonds, smaller than dust specks, are cheap.

Shock Therapy

An Israeli startup and researchers at Ben-Gurion University are developing a filter containing laser-induced graphene, a porous, conductive foam that they say can capture bacterial and viral particles. Running electricity through the conductive graphene would then kill the microbes. The team planned to target the air- and water-filtration market, but then came Covid-19, so they started looking at adapting the tech to masks. The idea is, you wear a graphene-infused mask out and about, and once you're safely home you disinfect it, perhaps by plugging in a USB input.

When Can I Get One?

“Validation and more research is needed,” says BGU's Christopher Arnusch. There's also the question of whether the masks can be produced cheaply enough to be commercially viable.

Fatal Fibers

Argaman Technologies, an Israeli textile research company, claims its BioBlocX masks contain cotton and polyester fibers embedded with accelerated copper oxide particles. Similarly to Sonovia's tech, Argaman says that when virus particles hit the mask, positive ions from the copper attach themselves to the virus and destroy its ability to replicate. The masks also include a layer of a nanofiber membrane that allegedly filters out pathogens.

When Can I Get One?

The company sells to the public via its website. But remember, at press time, the FDA hadn't given a thumbs-up to any antiviral mask.

Illustrations by StoryTK

This article appears in the July/August issue. Subscribe now.

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