RICHMOND, Va. (WRIC)– A team of researchers at Virginia Commonwealth University are working to develop a face mask that not only prevents the spread of COVID-19 but actually kills the virus.

The research team said that typically, the masks we’re used to wearing can capture airborne viruses, but they do not kill the virus.

The researchers are using a chemical similar to what is found in a disinfectant wipe, but have turned it into a solid. The chemical is turned into polymer fiber and coated on the outer layer of the fabric surface.

“This bacteria or virus can still live on the surface of your face mask for hours or even days,” VCU College of Engineering Professor, Dr. Wei-Ning Wang said.

Wang said this can be dangerous and can cause cross-contamination.

face mask graphic
face mask graphic
A graphic of how the mask works. (Courtesy of VCU)

The outer layer on Wang’s prototype plays a role in killing the bacteria or virus. He told 8News, the team is still trying to figure out how to put the layer on the face mask.

According to Wang, there are already several active face mask technologies available on the market. One idea is to coat the mask with a metal ion like copper, silver or zinc, which can kill bacteria or pathogens. Another idea is a heating method. Wang believes the metal coat has a potential risk of chemical release and poses safety concerns while the heating method would need a battery or external device to power it.

Wang had been studying air filters when the pandemic hit and he was “shocked” because he had already been doing this work.

He said he saw how much health workers were struggling on the front line and he wanted to help the general public. In addition, Wang’s wife was dealing with a chronic illness and her heart had collapsed at least three times. He jumped into action to find a way to help her.

“My ultimate goal is to develop this sort of active face mask to protect the people, to protect our society and reduce the environmental burden,” Wang said.

The team has applied for a patent and is in the early stages, testing with phage, a virus that’s not harmful to humans.

“We still do not have the access to the actual COVID virus because that’s very dangerous. You need to handle it very carefully,” Wang said.

With a prototype showing 95% efficiency in killing commonly found bacteria like E.coli, Wang said more data is necessary. The preliminary data showed bacteria dying 30 minutes to an hour after coming into contact with the outer layer of the mask. Wang hopes to shorten the inactivation time within five minutes.

Dr. Wang has more than ten years of research experience, specializing in materials science. He joined the university in 2014. For the last three years, Wang has been working on the technology and the product with his graduate student Zan Zhu and Ping Xu, Ph.D., a Professor in the School of Dentistry.

Wang told 8News, Zhu is currently a Ph.D. candidate assigned to most of the research, while Xu is a Microbiologist with more than 30 years of research experience. Wang said Xu is in charge of the bacteria selection.

The team plans to collaborate with the medical school at VCU in hopes to get the mask commercialized as soon as possible. The final state is to send a prototype to an independent testing facility for verification and then to future investors.

Dr. Wang hopes the technology will be ready and available for the public in two years.