Innovation Will Allow Healthcare Workers To Reuse Protective Face Masks

WBBM Newsradio Staff
May 22, 2020 - 1:05 pm

CHICAGO (WBBM NEWSRADIO) -- A research team led by a Northwestern University chemist has received a $200,000 grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to develop a chemically modified face mask that can deactivate viruses, including the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19.
 
Northwestern said that in addition to reducing the spread of the virus, the innovation will allow healthcare workers to reuse protective face masks, which are in critically short supply.

The project is the latest at Northwestern to receive a rapid response research (RAPID) grant from the NSF, which has called for immediate proposals that have the potential to address the spread of COVID-19.

Northwestern said the research team led by chemist Omar Farha already has created a nanomaterial that deactivates toxic nerve agents — an innovation that will protect those facing hazards such as chemical warfare. The new research will build upon that work to incorporate antiviral agents into equipment that will protect healthcare workers as they combat the COVID-19 pandemic.

 “We hope with small manipulations that we could deploy this to be antiviral as well,” said Farha, an associate professor of chemistry at the Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences.
  
Farha works with metal-organic frameworks, or MOFs — nano-sized, spongelike materials that can capture gases, vapors and other agents. He describes MOFs as “sophisticated bath sponges.”
 
“Imagine a sponge in the kitchen or bath,” he said. “It has a lot of holes. You spill water, but you can wipe it away easily — the water goes into those tiny holes. You squeeze the sponge and release the water, and you can use it again.
 
“What we do is make really smart, programmable sponges. The holes in our sponges are very ordered, and they have functions. You can use them to make very complex materials. Our materials capture toxic materials in those cavities the way a bath sponge captures water — but the cavities have catalysts able to deactivate toxic chemicals.”
 
The technology already exists to combat viruses on surfaces, Farha notes. The next step is to incorporate that antiviral technology into the nanomaterial that has already proven itself capable of destroying toxic nerve agents — and then to use that material to manufacture the new masks or modify existing masks.
 
“The goal is for the virus to disintegrate once it contacts the mask, while filtered air will pass through the mask safely,” Farha said. “As a result, these face masks have the potential to stop or slow the spread of the highly infectious coronavirus.”
 
Farha said the material should be able to work both ways: protecting the mask wearer from virus in his or her vicinity as well as protecting individuals who come into contact with an infected person wearing the mask.