Covid-19: Canadian university designs biodegradable face masks

With no proven drug or vaccine yet to cure the coronavirus disease Covid-19, millions around the world are taking precautions such as wearing face masks, maintaining social distancing to protect themselves from getting infected. But the face masks that are being produced have to be discarded after some time.

Now, a multi-disciplinary team at Canada’s University of British Columbia (UBC) has designed a green version that can be composted and is biodegradable.

One of the byproducts of the coronavirus crisis is that the masks in use now, usually non-reusable, are discarded and add to stress on the environment. The UBC team has attempted to counter this challenge while also making the first medical grade N95 mask that is entirely made in Canada using materials available in the country.

The Canadian-Mask or Can-Mask is a product of research at the UBC’s BioProducts Institute. The mask frame uses locally available wood fibre from a variety of softwoods including pine, spruce and cedar. Two prototypes have been developed: One with the commercial N95 filter in front and another with a wood-based special filter.

In a release issued by the University, Johan Foster, a chemical and biological engineering associate professor in the faculty of applied science, said, “With millions of disposable masks and gloves already polluting city sidewalks and potentially entering our rivers and oceans, we urgently need a biodegradable option to avoid making a massive impact on our environment.”

The biodegradable face masks developed by UBS also strengthen the local supply chain as such masks were usually being imported and have been a scarce commodity following the outbreak across the world.

Such shortage is another issue that is a focus of the project. As Foster said, “With escalating tensions during a pandemic, international supply lines for medical masks can break down, creating local shortages. When we decided to design a mask back in March, we knew early on we wanted a solution that uses local materials, is easy to produce and inexpensive, with the added bonus of being compostable and biodegradable.”

The researchers are hopeful they will be able to apply for Health Canada certification soon after further testing of the masks to health industry specifications like fit and permeability. And then, these eco-friendly masks will go into cost-effective production.

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