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Univ. Lab Developing Self-Sanitizing Face Mask

Hun Park and Haiyue Huang

Hun Park, left, and Haiyue Huang inspect proposed face mask material (Northwestern University)

25 Mar. 2020. A materials science team is creating a face mask that kills infectious virus particles, such as those spreading Covid-19, as well as blocks respiratory droplets. The project, now underway at Northwestern University in Chicago, is funded by a one year, $200,000 grant from National Science Foundation.

Researchers led by materials science and engineering professor Jiaxing Huang are creating a drop-in chemically active insert for conventional medical face masks that kills virions, particles from viruses that contain the infectious genomic components transferred to host cells. While today’s face masks block the respiratory droplets from coughs and sneezes, the insert proposed by Huang and colleagues would go a step further and kill disease-spreading virions in those droplets expelled by wearers, either patients or medical staff.

“Spread of infectious respiratory diseases, such as Covid-19,” says Huang in a university statement, “typically starts when an infected person releases virus-laden respiratory droplets through coughing or sneezing. To further slow and even prevent the virus from spreading, we need to greatly reduce the number and activity of the viruses in those just released respiratory droplets.”

Huang’s lab studies chemical properties of materials, including two-dimensional materials such as graphene. Recent papers from the Huang lab and collaborating teams describe chemical characteristics of graphene oxide modified with nitrogen, as well as physical and structural properties of graphene oxide films.

In this project, the researchers are applying those principles by altering the chemistry of a conducting polymer material to generate a harsh local environment for virions. A chemical agent added to the polymer would dissolve in the warm exhaled air of the wearer, but does not vaporize in the cooler inhaled air. The material would be designed as an insert that can be easily added to today’s conventional medical masks.

The team from Huang’s lab, graduate student Haiyue Huang and postdoctoral researcher Hun Park, are already at work on the project, says the university. Because the lab is directly engaged in the fight against Covid-19, its members are exempt from the statewide stay-at-home order in Illinois.

NSF is funding the work under its Rapid Response Research mechanism for Covid-19 projects, which allows the agency to to receive and review proposals having a severe urgency. Awards under this authority typically fund up to $200,000 and for work of up to a year.

The team hopes their efforts inspire other labs to improve on their first product. “More researchers, and especially students in the physical sciences and engineering, can proactively study the problems and think of new ways to mitigate the transmission and spread of viruses,” notes Huang. “Even those who need to stay home for now can still continue to brainstorm.”

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