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How a charitable organization and BYU students developed a mask that could make N95s obsolete

BYU mechanical engineering senior Denton Markwalter, left, works on a prototype of an electrical spinning machine with Spencer Curtis in the engineering resource lab at BYU in Provo on Monday, Oct. 26, 2020. The machine can be used to spin a nanofiber membrane that can be sandwiched between the cloth pieces of a homemade mask, increasing effectiveness while preserving breathability.
BYU mechanical engineering senior Denton Markwalter, left, works on a prototype of an electrical spinning machine with Spencer Curtis in the engineering resource lab at BYU in Provo on Monday, Oct. 26, 2020. The machine can be used to spin a nanofiber membrane that can be sandwiched between the cloth pieces of a homemade mask, increasing effectiveness while preserving breathability.
Yukai Peng, Deseret News

PROVO — A new and improved type of protective mask — one that is six times easier to breathe through than N95s and more effective at preventing the spread of COVID-19 — may soon be available.

The Nanos Foundation, a charitable organization out of Alabama, has collaborated with BYU’s College of Engineering to create an open-source “95+” mask, which it hopes to make available to people worldwide.

Not all protective masks are created equally, according to Anton Bowden, a BYU professor of engineering who is an adviser on the project.

“Cloth masks obviously seem to be helping, right?” he said. “But the difference between the cloth mask and a N95 mask is really a huge order of magnitude difference in ability to protect the wearer, which is why that’s commonly what’s sought after in a health care environment. And, frankly, it’s why the N95 masks have been tough to come by, because it is what everyone wants.”

N95s are more successful at blocking particulate matter, such as viruses, than both surgical masks and cloth face coverings. However, the research group has found a way to augment the more breathable and comfortable cloth masks to be similarly effective to N95s, if not more so.

“It should outperform N95s,” said Will Vahle, the director of the Nanos Foundation. “The efficacy of the mask is very high.”

To accomplish this, the researchers used a special fiber production technique to create membranes that coat cloth masks and trap particulate matter.

Electrospinning, in this context, is a process where a dissolved polymer is pushed through a needle at high voltage, pulling the polymer out of the solution and stretching it into a tiny nanofiber.

These fibers are spread evenly onto a piece of cloth, forming a membrane.

A prototype of an electrical spinning machine is pictured in the engineering resource lab at BYU in Provo on Monday, Oct. 26, 2020. The machine can be used to spin a nanofiber membrane that can be sandwiched between the cloth pieces of a homemade mask, increasing effectiveness while preserving breathability.
A prototype of an electrical spinning machine is pictured in the engineering resource lab at BYU in Provo on Monday, Oct. 26, 2020. The machine can be used to spin a nanofiber membrane that can be sandwiched between the cloth pieces of a homemade mask, increasing effectiveness while preserving breathability.
Yukai Peng, Deseret News

The fibers maintain static electricity from the high voltage, and — just like a staticky balloon clings to surfaces — small particles are attracted to the fibers and stick to the membrane, preventing them from getting through the mask.

Vahle said ideas for using electrospinning technology in novel ways had been bouncing around his head since 2019 — pre-COVID-19 — months before he actually started on the design work for the masks.

When the pandemic hit, he thought that implementing electrospun fibers into personal protective equipment was a no-brainer.

“I expected somebody would get on this, right, start making electrospun fibers for masks, which I guess was a silly assumption in retrospect, because nobody did,” he said. “It was one of these things once you see it, you see it so clearly, and then you don’t realize that nobody else can see what you’re seeing.”

The coating of fibers on the mask doesn’t inhibit breathability, and Bowden says they feel like a typical cloth mask, giving people the best of both worlds in terms of protection and comfort.

Many other types of disposable masks also utilize electrostatic charges to trap virus particles, but the 95+ lasts longer, Vahle said.

“Because ours are made with electricity, it lasts longer, the charge lasts longer,” he said. “It is far more ingrained in the fiber of the masks.”

The skeleton of an electrical spinning machine is pictured in the engineering resource lab at BYU in Provo on Monday, Oct. 26, 2020. The machine can be used to spin a nanofiber membrane that can be sandwiched between the cloth pieces of a homemade mask, increasing effectiveness while preserving breathability.
The skeleton of an electrical spinning machine is pictured in the engineering resource lab at BYU in Provo on Monday, Oct. 26, 2020. The machine can be used to spin a nanofiber membrane that can be sandwiched between the cloth pieces of a homemade mask, increasing effectiveness while preserving breathability.
Yukai Peng, Deseret News

The team sees these new masks as a potential solution not only for the domestic scarcity of N95s, but also an answer for other countries’ complete lack. Because of this, they plan to make the technology available to everyone who wants it.

“Even in the U.S., ... we think, it’s kind of hard to get a hold of (N95s). But you can imagine there’s a huge chunk of the world that it’s impossible,” Bowden said. “A part of this is it’s an open-source thing, so clearly it’s intended for here, but it is also intended to go much broader than that.”

While electrospinning can be a very delicate process in certain applications, this particular use of the technology — to augment masks — is more tolerant of variability in extrinsic variables, including environmental humidity and air temperature.

“It’s astronomically more idiot proof,” Vahle said, which also makes the tech that much easier to disseminate worldwide.

The Nanos Foundation approached BYU last summer and began work with the engineering department in June.

“We’re a small organization, and we kind of really need to attach ourselves to a group with more ethos, more credibility, credentials, a group that is well-credentialed to back up the technology,” Vahle said. “And so we ended up working with BYU. And BYU, to their credit, really took a leap.”

Multiple students worked on the project during the summer, some of whom had lost out on internship opportunities because of COVID-19, Bowden said. So they transferred their passion into this project instead.

“Every day ... Will Vahle would walk in and write down the stats on the board. Maybe not every day, but frequently, he would walk in and write down this is how many people died since yesterday due to COVID-19, so he was keeping us motivated and goal-oriented,” said Ethan Fullwood, a freshman in the electrical engineering department who worked on the project.

Another group of students is currently working on bringing the technology to India as part of their senior product-design capstone projects.

“That’s really what the students are working on right now is improving the process, making it even easier and more reproducible and bringing down the hurdles that might lead to internationalizing this to different places,” Bowden said.

Despite how complicated electrospinning sounds, the tools needed to run it are quite mundane for this purpose. It requires an air pump — which could be as simple as a bicycle pump — a soda bottle, acetone, recycled plastics, cloth and a high-voltage power source.

All of those components are also relatively inexpensive — even the power source.

“Typically when you use a high-voltage source, you’re thinking about something that’s a power source that may cost you $10,000 or something to produce 20 kV of electrical,” Bowden said. “But it turns out there is a really low-cost, high-power source — high-voltage source — that is available everywhere in the world: that’s these old CRT televisions. And it turns out, these old CRT televisions have a built-in power source that can get up to about 27 kV, that we have proven that we can actually repurpose an old television power source to do the electrospinning with. We’ve actually done that.”

“That’s really the major expense, and it’s almost nothing because you’re pulling it out of a dumpster somewhere, because everyone’s moving to different kinds of televisions.”

The cheap cost of materials means electrospun masks take only pennies to produce.

“These are things you can find anywhere in the world, and literally can envision entrepreneurs setting up on the corners in Mumbai mask-making shops using old televisions and just doing this,” Bowden said. “This is really intended to be something that can be broadly and quickly spread to the world.”

The Nanos Foundation is currently fundraising to help it bring the information online, test other power sources and produce cheap quality control testers.

“We had our results but realized we need to formalize it a little bit. Not necessarily over-formalize it, like in the form of a research paper, but formalize it in terms of this is how to do it and publish that information online,” Vahle said. “And where we’re at now is we need some funding, basically. We’re fundraising to raise some money to get the technology out there.”

“The tech is ready to go. We need cash, and we need volunteers.”

They’re also working to partner with global microlending groups as well as companies in the U.S. to deploy the technology domestically.

It’s all in an effort to maximize the positive impact the masks will eventually have.

“Certainly there’s a lot of money in making masks right now, but do you really want to look back on your life, sitting on a pile of money, and say, ‘Boy, I’m glad I didn’t save those people?’” Vahle said. “At some point you’ve got something that’s too important to hoard.”