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Masks, meet science

These face shield prototypes were created on a 3D printer. (Courtesy of University Of New Mexico)

These face shield prototypes were created on a 3D printer. (Courtesy of University Of New Mexico)

Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal

Concern over the ability of face masks to stave off transmission of the new coronavirus has prompted the University of New Mexico and a locally coordinated network of 3D printers to collaborate on designing, creating and deploying effective protective gear.

UNM associate chair of Mechanical Engineering Peter Vorobieff plans to study the underlying physics of face masks with assistance from university biologists and mathematicians to determine how effective masks are against virus particles, develop appropriate designs to impede particle passage and assess safe ways to disinfect masks for reuse.

3D printing shops united in the New Collar Network, which includes three New Mexico-based digital manufacturers and 14 more in other states, will work to deploy UNM-proven designs within their own network, and through the international Fab Lab Network connected to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. The MIT network includes more than 1,000 fab labs worldwide.

“While it’s understood to some extent how masks work, there’s a lot of public concern and media reports about them not working,” Vorobieff told the Journal. “We need to understand the underlying physics better to make sure they’re safe and effective.”

Virus flow physics

Mask makers need proven designs to establish protocols and best practices for digital manufacturers to produce them, said Sarah Boisvert, founder of Santa Fe-based startup Fab Lab Hub LLC, which is coordinating the New Collar Network’s collaboration with UNM.

“There’s so much wrong information out there and so many ‘do-it-yourself-ers’ jumping in with good intentions to make masks and other protective gear,” Boisvert said. “We need a balance between that overwhelming, energetic response to help with the coronavirus, and proper guidelines and protocols to act responsibly.”

Respiratory masks have micron-size pores through which users inhale and exhale, Vorobieff said. People think the masks don’t work because coronavirus particles are just 120 nanometers, or about 10 times smaller than a micron.

“Most frequently, virus particles are imbedded in drops of saliva or mucus that are micron-size or larger, so they do stick to the mask,” Vorobieff said. “But many things can happen, such as the mask getting saturated or becoming dried out. We need to study the exact physics of what’s happening in the different mask layers and determine what works and what doesn’t with mathematical models.”

UNM’s mechanical engineering department can set up experiments to study air flow with droplets as they pass through the masks. UNM’s mathematics and statistics department would help develop models of what’s actually happening, Vorobieff said.

The School of Medicine, meanwhile, will provide surrogate viral particles in place of the coronavirus, said molecular genetics and microbiology professor David Peabody.

“The surrogate particles are roughly the same size range as coronavirus particles,” Peabody said. “We can label them fluorescently to track and follow them through the research.”

A scanning electron microscope made these images of the outsides of a surgical mask, left, and an N95 mask. The N95 mask has multiple layers.

A scanning electron microscope made these images of the outsides of a surgical mask, left, and an N95 mask. The N95 mask has multiple layers. ()

Cleaned for reuse

UNM will also assess effectiveness when disinfecting masks.

“We want to see what happens if you sterilize the masks, or tumble dry them with a drop-in solution,” Vorobieff said. “We need to determine how those things affect mask functions and the viruses that are already stuck to them.”

That could lead to new protocols to assure virus particles are neutralized and that masks continue to resist particle flow after cleaning them. That, in turn, could greatly reduce the need to make new masks, said retired UNM biology professor Maggie Werner-Washburne.

“The U.S. needs some 3 billion masks,” Werner-Washburne said. “With effective disinfection protocols, we can reuse masks and reduce the number of new ones needed to maybe 1 billion.”

Seeking funding

Werner-Washburne helped connect the 3D printing network with UNM for the project. She’s also helping to secure federal, and possibly state, funding for the research.

“We’re looking for money now,” Werner-Washburne said. “We’re in contact with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and we’re ready to go. This is a shovel-ready project.”

New Collar Network members are already making masks based on CDC guidelines that say home-made masks can be used if face shields are included for extra protection, Boisvert of Fab Lab Hub said.

Bosivert and two other network members in Albuquerque and Los Alamos are each capable of producing 500 masks with combination face shields every two weeks, for a total of 3,000 monthly. They plan to offer the masks locally and send any excess inventory to New York – the nation’s current coronavirus hotspot.

Boisvert is also working with an Ohio factory to supply spools of special anti-microbial filament to incorporate directly into mask production to add another layer of protection. Once UNM’s research-based mask designs are available, the network will produce them using the anti-microbial filament and share new protocols and best practices with the international Fab Lab Network.

“We’re working with UNM to produce truly protective masks, and to create an easy-to-manufacture design,” Boisvert said.

With sufficient funding, UNM could have first study results ready in two or three months to begin sharing with manufacturers, although it could continue the research, if funded, for up to three years to achieve the best, proven designs, Vorobieff said.

“We want to help in the pandemic now, but this won’t be the last pandemic,” Vorobieff said. “There will be another one and we bloody well should be better prepared for that next one than we were for this one.”

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