New Atlas: Salty masks could kill coronavirus

Should you be in China right now, you’ll see a lot of people wearing surgical masks to protect themselves against coronavirus. A Canadian scientist claims that such masks may actually do more harm than good, if handled improperly – so he’s created a coating that could reportedly change that.

A biomedical engineer based out of the University of Alberta, Asst. Prof. Hyo-Jick Choi states that there are two main problems with using surgical masks for protection against coronavirus.

For one thing, they’re only capable of capturing large airborne virus-laden water droplets. Respiratory viruses such as coronavirus, unfortunately, can also be spread via much smaller aerosol droplets, which are able to make their way through the masks’ pores. Devices known as N95/N99 respirators are able to filter out aerosols, but they’re not as breathable as masks, plus they’re expensive and impractical for everyday use.

The other problem with masks lies in the fact that, while they may trap some viruses, they don’t kill them. As a result, when people remove and discard of used masks, the viruses could be transferred from those masks and onto their fingers or other commonly-touched surfaces.

With these problems in mind, Choi and colleagues designed a virus-killing coating that can be applied to conventional mask filtration material. He tells us that it’s made up mainly of two salts – sodium chloride and potassium chloride.

When a droplet of any size comes into contact with the coating, the salts dissolve into it. As that droplet subsequently evaporates, the dissolved salts within it crystallize – the sharp edges of the crystals stab into any viruses that may be present, killing them.

“We’ve tested our system on three different influenza viruses and have shown that the virus on the surface of a coated contaminated mask is inactive within five minutes and completely destroyed within 30 minutes,” says Choi. He believes that the technology should be equally effective against coronavirus.

The university is now looking for corporate partners to help commercialize the coating, with hopes of having a product on the market within 12 to 18 months. In the meantime, Choi recommends that users of conventional masks not touch the filtration material itself, always wash their hands before and after handling a mask, never store used masks in places such as pockets, and replace masks after each use.

The research is being funded by Mitacs, a not-for-profit organization that fosters growth and innovation in Canada. It’s previously brought us things such as an augmented reality feedback system for the training of athletes, and a computer vision-based flight data recorder.

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