MIT Designs Wallet-Friendly, Reusable Version Of N95 Face Mask

Image via MIT

When the mysterious coronavirus suddenly swept the world earlier this year, federal and health agencies struggled to gather sufficient units of personal protective equipment (PPE) to fight the unprecedented COVID-19 disease. Over the months, inventors—and even fashion brands—have sought to meet the abruptly growing demand as well as design new versions that would be more comfortable, breathable, and safer for wearers.

One side effect of the shortage was that frontline professionals had to oftentimes resort to reusing the same disposable N95 masks for weeks, and even disinfected them to be redistributed elsewhere. Half a year deep into the frenzy, PPE remains to be in scarce supply.

However, a new alternative to N95 respirators could help solve the concerns of hygiene and the management of PPE reserves, while being as effective as medical-grade masks. ‘iMASC’, short for Injection Molded Autoclavable, Scalable, Conformable, is a new type of face mask developed by engineers and researchers at MIT and Brigham and Women’s Hospital that can be sterilized quickly and has been found to filter out virus particles just as well as N95 respirators.

As a solution to N95 respirators’ powerful filters, the iMASC features slots for two small N95 filter material that can be discarded after use. The silicon mask can then be sterilized promptly and easily after the material is disposed of.

Image via MIT

There are also multiple ways to sterilize the mask—while N95 masks have to be cleaned with hydrogen peroxide disinfectants and specialized equipment, and the sterilization process takes a few days. As the team detailed in a paper published in the British Medical Journal Open, researchers could properly treat the iMASC with a steam sterilizer, an oven, and a bath of bleach and rubbing alcohol during their tests.

The iMASC also happens to be friendlier on the environment. It is made up of less disposable material—and while the tiny N95 disks used to filter out virus-containing particles have to be thrown away after use, they’re a negligible amount in comparison with full N95 respirators.

Giovanni Traverso, assistant professor of mechanical engineering at MIT and Brigham and Women’s Hospital gastroenterologist, described that the iMASC is designed with the maximization of “ reusability of the system” in mind.

The iMASC also lived up to experts’ expectations. Not only did it prove to be as effective as the N95 mask in filtering out virus particles during lab tests, but it was also commended by 24 healthcare professionals invited to test out the garment for its comfort and breathability. The volunteers had approved of its ease for tests involving breathing, talking, making facial expressions, and moving their head and body. The mask could also filter out a sugar solution simulating respiratory droplets.

More tests are to be conducted, and after which, the researchers intend to have the iMASC approved by the Food and Drug Administration and the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health.

Should the mask get greenlit, it will be sold to hospitals at an estimated US$15 per unit, according to Fast Company. In contrast, single-use N95 masks cost US$2.80 to US$6.95. However, the vision is to ultimately make it accessible to both healthcare professionals and the general public.

The iMASC isn’t the only personal protective gear that the team is working on. A second mask is underway, though details about this design aren’t readily available yet.

[via CNBC Make It, images via MIT]

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