Could A Self-Sanitizing Face Mask Help Fight COVID-19?

A researcher at Northwestern is developing an add-on for a medical face mask that would deactivate viruses on contact.

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Graduate student Haiyue Huang and postdoctoral fellow Hun Park work in a lab at Northwestern University. Northwestern has received federal funding to develop a new self-sanitizing medical face mask that deactivates viruses on contact. Northwestern University
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Graduate student Haiyue Huang and postdoctoral fellow Hun Park work in a lab at Northwestern University. Northwestern has received federal funding to develop a new self-sanitizing medical face mask that deactivates viruses on contact. Northwestern University

Could A Self-Sanitizing Face Mask Help Fight COVID-19?

A researcher at Northwestern is developing an add-on for a medical face mask that would deactivate viruses on contact.

Jiaxing Huang and his research team haven’t had a good night's sleep in over a week.

They’ve spent most of their days in the lab at Northwestern University trying to develop an add-on to a face mask that could further protect health care workers and slow the new coronavirus.

The virus is mainly spread through respiratory droplets released by patients when they cough. That’s why face masks are so important to create a physical barrier and keep health care workers from inhaling the virus or sick people from spreading it.

Huang’s team is trying to go a step further and create a component that would sanitize those droplets, reducing the amount of virus in them. They are testing various chemicals that could possibly act as sanitizers.

“This way it would reduce the virus concentration of particles when they land in air or on surfaces,” Huang said.

The goal is to create a kind of sticker that could be placed on top of already manufactured face masks, which Huang believes would be easier to distribute quickly in an emergency situation, rather than developing an entirely new face mask design.

Huang doesn’t have a timeline yet on when this could be ready for use.

The team received a National Science Foundation rapid research response grant to continue their research, making them essential researchers under Gov. JB Pritzker's stay at home order. Their proposal was the first in the physical sciences and engineering to receive support.

Huang and his team had been thinking about this idea even before the new coronavirus made its way to the United States — so they were able to submit their request even before the NSF put out its call for proposals. Huang also said they were able to order supplies early, before the Illinois stay at home order, which has slowed down ordering.

Since the virus is new and there’s little research so far, Huang and his team are testing generic materials that are safe and have been used to fight other viruses like influenza, including acid or metal ions.

“We’re trying to load active components on this modifying layer so it can be released when outgoing droplets pass them but they’re not going to be inhaled by people,” Huang said. Usually, researchers aren’t so willing to share their hypothesis or ongoing work, but Huang said he doesn’t mind sharing in case other researchers can build on the idea.

Since he works in material sciences, he doesn’t have the capability to conduct biomedical research. His goal is to understand how these antiviral components could work on the mask and then try to find researchers to test them out.

“We’ll be happy to send them samples,” he said.

Kate McGee covers education for WBEZ. Follow her on Twitter @WBEZeducation and @McGeeReports.