• A reusable coronavirus face mask that can provide adequate protection in high-risk settings such as hospitals is in the prototyping phase.
  • Researchers from MIT and Brigham and Women’s Hospital created N95 face masks from silicone featuring user-replaceable filters. The silicone rubber is designed to withstand several sterilization methods, which would allow healthcare workers to reuse the N95 mask multiple times.
  • The product could enter mass-production after receiving the proper regulatory approvals.

The novel coronavirus pandemic taught us that we can’t afford to be unprepared for a highly infectious disease. From individuals to communities to governments, everyone has to do their part to prevent transmission and keep people safe. But it’s ultimately the responsibility of elected officials to understand the risks and have a strategy to minimize harm. America will be remembered for its unpreparedness and indecisiveness at the start of the pandemic that allowed the virus to surge across the country.

The lockdown delays, the scarcity of COVID-19 test kits, and the lack of personal protective equipment (PPE) supply for healthcare workers at the onset of the local outbreaks allowed the virus to propagate with ease everywhere in the country. New York quickly turned into the world’s COVID-19 epicenter. These issues were fixed in the months that followed, but other mistakes took their place, allowing the illness to surge in other states where lockdowns were able to flatten the curve initially. While tests and PPE supply aren’t as problematic as they were before, uncontrolled outbreaks could further hinder the response and deplete reserves. This is true for other regions of the world where the virus is surging as well, like Brazil and India, which have been dealing with sustained COVID-19 transmission for weeks.

But researchers are already looking at ways to prevent supply issues. The FDA just approved COVID-19 pool testing, which can increase the number of diagnoses and speed up results. MIT tackled a different problem, designing a reusable N95 face mask out of silicone that could prevent PPE supply issues in the future.

The N95 masks are some of the safest face masks you can buy, and they’re standard in hospital settings. They can provide better filtration than surgical masks and further reduce the risk of infection with various pathogens, novel coronavirus included. Lack of masks prompted hospitals to come up with sterilization methods for existing N95 masks so that they could be reused. Even so, the sterilization process involves exposure to hydrogen peroxide vapor, which not all medical facilities may have access to.

Researchers from MIT teamed up with Brigham and Women’s Hospital to create a face mask made of silicone rubber. The material is very durable, and liquid silicone rubber can be molded into any shape using industrial tools.

As seen in the images above, the MIT N95 masks are made in the shape of 3M’s 1860, which is commonly used in some hospitals, including Brigham. They feature two N95 filters in the middle, which are designed to be easily replaced after every use. That way, manufacturers can save up N95 mask materials and use them for filters.

The masks can withstand several sterilization methods without sustaining any damage, including autoclave steam sterilization, oven heat, bleach, and isopropyl alcohol.

The designers also tested the fit of the masks on 20 healthcare workers from the emergency and oncology departments of the hospitals. The subjects had to put on the mask, perform a series of movements, and then determine whether they could feel the taste or smell of a nebulized sugar solution dispersed in the room. All subjects passed the test, and they said they could successfully replace the filters.

Some of the testers said they had no preference for N95 masks, while others said they liked the silicone mask better. The product also received high ratings for breathability, MIT News reported.

“We know that COVID is really not going away until a vaccine is prevalent,” Brigham and Women’s Hospital radiation oncologist James Byrne told the blog. “I think there’s always going to be a need for masks, whether it be in the health care setting or in the general public.”

The designers have been working on a second version of the mask, which should be more comfortable and durable. Future tests will cover the mask’s ability to filter viral particles, the report says. They’re also working to find a company to support manufacturing, upon approval from the FDA and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH). The researchers published a full study that explains how the silicone mask works, available in British Medical Journal Open.

Chris Smith started writing about gadgets as a hobby, and before he knew it he was sharing his views on tech stuff with readers around the world. Whenever he's not writing about gadgets he miserably fails to stay away from them, although he desperately tries. But that's not necessarily a bad thing.