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Hyo-Jick Choi, a biomedical engineer and assistant professor in the chemical and materials engineering department, said masks are a form of personal protection from illnesses, but that they have limitations.
“They’re function is to simply filter the pathogens in the air,” Choi explained.
“The issue is they do not die right away. So the pathogens, for example, like viruses, they can survive a minimum of several hours up to a week. So during that time, if you do not properly handle surgical mask or respirators, there’s a high chance of contact transmission.”
While viruses are still alive on a surface, they’re able to be transferred to other areas.
“(During) the discarding process, many people make a mistake by touching the surface of the mask or respirators,” Choi said.
He also differentiated between surgical masks and what are known as N95/N99 respirators: the former offers protection against large droplets, while the latter can filter smaller particles – like those that coronavirus is spread through – but aren’t as breathable or affordable.
“I think it’s very important for us to understand what those personal protective devices can do and their limitations.”
Choi’s Mitacs-funded research is developing what they believe is a more effective face mask for combatting viruses.
Their product is coated with a salt solution that crystallizes when it comes in contact with droplets. As the crystals grow, they destroy the virus with their edges.
After testing the mask on three different influenza strains, Choi’s team says it can render a virus inactive within five minutes and completely destroy it in 30 minutes.
“(A) human being has the tendency to touch their face every four minutes. So, it’s human being nature,” Choi said.
“That’s why our technology has a very promising potential.”
Choi’s face mask is in the process of being commercialized, and he hopes for it to be publicly available within a year and a half.
He offered several tips for using surgical masks and respirators: