As mask use becomes the new standard worldwide, a team of researchers from EPFL’s EssentialTech Center and Empa (the Swiss federal materials-science center) has created a way to improve at least one of the many challenges of using face protection with a new transparent design that does not hide but protects the user’s mouth.
Even thin masks can be hot, uncomfortable, and tend to drown out voices – anyone who has tried to wear one has noticed. But the biggest challenge is that disposable masks can be very impersonal. As facial expressions are partially covered up, caregivers find it difficult to show facial expressions, which is really very important while communicating with some segments of the population – like children, the elderly, and the hearing impaired.
To solve these problems, researchers have finalized a material to fabricate the masks that is almost completely transparent, which may be of interest to those who want to show a little more of their face in the future. In addition to being transparent, they are also recyclable and biodegradable, since the masks need to be removed and discarded after a certain period of time to remain effective.
They call their surgical mask “HelloMask,” and is made of biomass-based recyclable material, which also makes them a little more environmentally friendly than some other face masks on the market. The masks are made using a technique called “electrospinning,” where one uses electrical force to create ultra-thin polymer fibers, which are then used to fabricate their masks.
The fibers in the mask are just 100 nm apart, which is the same spacing used in conventional surgical masks. That is, they are small enough to filter out viruses and bacteria but large enough to let air through.
“Our material is made at 99% from a biomass derivative, and we’ll keep working on them until they’re completely eco-friendly,” says Thierry Pelet.
EPFL and Empa have already created a startup called HMCARE, which will start selling the transparent HelloMask when they are ready for it. The market launch is planned in early 2021. Although they will be offered initially to health professionals and doctors, as production increases, they may eventually be marketed to the general public.