VCU student, professors designing high-tech face mask that kills COVID microbes


People wearing face masks pass by posters reminding precautions against the coronavirus at a subway station in Seoul, South Korea, Wednesday, Nov. 17, 2021. South Korea on Wednesday reported 3,187 new cases of the coronavirus, nearly matching a one-day record set in September, a worrisome development in a country that eased social distancing rules in recent weeks to lessen the pandemic’s economic impact. (AP Photo/Ahn Young-joon).

RICHMOND, Va (WRIC) – Two VCU professors and one student are working together to develop a new face mask that kills microbes – including the particle that causes COVID-19.

The new mask is being designed by Wei-Ning Wang, Ph.D., an associate professor in the Department of Mechanical and Nuclear Engineering, Ping Xu, Ph.D., a professor at the Philips Institute for Oral Health Research and Zan Zhu, a student in the Department of Mechanical and Nuclear Engineering.

The researchers said that the mask is made of three lightweight layers that each have a hand in increasing its effectiveness and comfort.

  • The innermost layer is designed to absorb water vapor, which will prevent glasses from becoming foggy, as well as keep the wearer cool and comfortable.
  • The middle layer traps particles similarly to an N95 mask.
  • The outermost layer is woven with nanofibers that kill viruses.

According to the release, the nanofibers that make up the nontoxic exterior layer contain an antibacterial and antiviral ammonia compound that can be found in some soap products.

The fibers also carry a positive electrical charge, which attracts virus particles that are negatively charged. When a virus binds to the nanofiber, the pressure disrupts its membrane, resulting in the death of the cell.

Wang, Xu and Zhu said they are still working to improve the design of the mask, by improving the time it takes to kill pathogens, which is currently 30-60 minutes, and decreasing the cost for the materials, which is already low.

While this new mask design has the potential to appeal to everyday people after being brought to market, Wang believes it will especially benefit health care workers.

“The risk of hospital-acquired infections is always high. In addition, health care workers need to wear face masks all day,” Wang said. “Our group wants to produce a mask for them that truly mitigates that risk and is comfortable to wear.”

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