Better Face Masks Are Possible: Here Are Some Winning Designs

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High quality masks called respiratory organs such as N95 and KN95 provide strong protection against the spread of COVID-19. But when it comes to comfort and convenience, there is certainly room for improvement. The mask will cloud the glasses. Wearing it for hours at a time can cause sweat and discomfort (especially in the humid summer heat). The effect varies greatly from brand to brand. And when people cover half of their faces, it becomes difficult to read facial expressions and interact socially.

This week, a project called the Mask Innovation Challenge unveiled 10 finalists from a high-prize contest aimed at supporting innovators working on future masks and interconnecting these groups.

“We wanted to help innovate to protect the American people from future public health emergencies,” said Kumiko Lippold, a health scientist who is the project’s challenge manager. “Together, we wanted to make something that was really comfortable, long-wearing, and ideally unnoticed. It also provided excellent evidence-based protection and what people wear. I made it understandable and why. They are wearing it and will want to wear it. “

The Mask Innovation Challenge is run by Lippold and her colleagues in the Research, Innovation and Ventures Division (DRIVe), which is part of the Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Agency (BARDA) of the US Department of Health and Human Services. After the contest started in March 2021, it was immediately flooded with about 1,500 entries. To narrow down to 40 finalists and 10 winners, Lippold’s team and experts hired as judges considered four criteria. First, the entry had to block the virus and appear to work in real-world situations. Second, it needed to be innovative. Third, issues such as cloudiness and discomfort that caused the wearer to constantly readjust the mask had to be addressed. Finally, it had to have a strong design that would make people want to wear it.

Some finalists have revolutionized the process of fitting or creating masks. Air Flo Labs uses 3D scanning to FloMask (left) Fits the wearer’s face. Levi’s Strauss has developed a mask (right) Can be manufactured by any clothing manufacturer. credit: Air Flo Labs, LLC (left); Paul Dillinger / Levi Strauss & Co. ((right).

The 10 award-winning designs were very different. Most were from start-ups, some were born in college, and some were submitted by major companies, including Amazon. For certain masks, the innovation was in new materials. The entry from Georgetown University uses a light, breathable metal foam that filters contaminants through small pores. A startup called 4C Air has created a translucent filter to allow BreSafe transparent masks to show through. Other participants tried new manufacturing and fitting methods. Jeans maker Levi Strauss has developed a low-cost respirator design that any clothing maker says can be manufactured. Meanwhile, startup Air Flo Labs uses a 3D face scan to ensure that FloMask Pro is tuned to the wearer’s face. Some entries have been broken through by rethinking the design elements. These include the Air99 Airgami mask at startup. It incorporates origami-like creases to spread the cover’s filter over a larger surface area and facilitate breathing.

But Lippold and her team weren’t finished. This winner of this first set will be designated as Phase 1 of the contest and will take several months to design the new Phase 2 structure. “We didn’t just want Phase 2 to be an exercise similar to Phase 1. We wanted to create something that would meet the needs of innovators,” explains Lippold. “And we [the general public and] Small businesses only take the time to really understand what they need. “

Georgetown University's entry uses foamed metal as a filter medium.
Georgetown University’s entry uses foamed metal as a filter medium. credit: James Malloy / Christopher Jensen / McCallum Robertson / Kai Liu

In Phase 2, DRIVe has resumed the contest. The winner of Phase 1 was able to reapply, but new entrants were also able to reapply. This time, the performance standards are much higher. “We built it in a way that innovators really push to achieve highly innovative changes in their products,” says Lippold. “We weren’t looking for gradual improvements. We were looking for something that was really trying to move the needle.” In this phase, the DRIVe team was working with the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) and National Standards. We have partnered with two government agencies of the Institute of Technology to repeatedly perform laboratory tests on entry filtration efficiency, breathability and suitability.

The organization then provided results to competitors, giving them the opportunity to redesign and improve. “I got such positive feedback from the finalists,” says Matthew Staymates, a mechanical engineer and fluid mechanic at NIST. While NIOSH conducted quantitative tests such as measuring the percentage of particles that could pass through the material and reach the wearer, Staymates focused on more qualitative measurements. For example, we used imaging techniques to visualize airflow to record breathing, conversation, and coughing while removing masks and wearing challenge participants’ prototypes.

Matthew Stimemates of the National Institute of Standards and Technology coughs with and without a mask and uses imaging techniques to visualize the movement of air after it exits the mouth.
Matthew Stimemates of the National Institute of Standards and Technology coughs with and without a mask and uses imaging techniques to visualize the movement of air after it exits the mouth. credit: M. Staymate / N. Hanacek / NIST

Staymate also recorded himself with an infrared camera that detects the hot air in the exhaled breath, showing how much of the area of ​​the mask is actively filtering his breath. And he wasn’t the only guinea pig. He also tested the mask with a custom mannequin that “breathes” like a human, but emits a visible mist instead of clear air. “What I like about this is the easy-to-understand visuals that show what the NIOSH quantitative data represent,” says Staymates. “And these are [mask prototypes] It was wonderful. It blocks about 98,99% of the droplets coming out of the mannequin. “

This week, BARDA has nominated 10 Phase 2 finalists. Of the 10 winners in Phase 1, only the 5 mentioned above created the shortlist. The five new finalists include three transparent or translucent designs: ClearMask, CrystalGuard, and MatregenixMask. There is also a strap-free Ready Mask. It sticks directly to the wearer’s face using an adhesive designed for the skin to prevent air leaks and fogging. And the fifth new finalist is a smart, personalized, near-face, extended wear (SINEW) mask that never touches your face. Instead, it uses electrostatic forces to prevent particles from approaching the wearer’s nose and mouth.

Several finalists, including ClearMask (left) and BreSafe (right), have created transparent or translucent facial covers that make facial expressions easier to read without sacrificing filtration.
ClearMask (left) And BreSafe (right) Created a transparent or translucent face cover that makes facial expressions easier to read without sacrificing filtration. credit: ClearMask, LLC (left); 4C Air Inc (right).

These finalists will be tested for the final round in September, says Lippold. In October, the DRIVe team will announce two winners. Each will receive $ 150,000 and the two runner-ups will each bring back $ 50,000. However, Lippold already considers the challenge a success. “To some extent, we’ve already achieved our goal, which is to help create a community of like-minded innovators who just want to help others,” she says. “It was like a goal, needless to say, but we wanted to inspire and support the acceleration of truly innovative designs. I think we achieved that in Phase 1.”

Her ideal achievement in the next phase is to allow finalists to obtain regulatory approvals, such as N95 certification from NIOSH and approval from the Food and Drug Administration. “By providing testing and evaluation opportunities, we support the generation of evidence based on these masks and their capabilities,” Lippold adds.

The strap-free ReadyMask adheres directly to the wearer's skin.
The strap-free ReadyMask adheres directly to the wearer’s skin. credit: John Schwind / Global Safety First, LLC


“The Mask Innovation Challenge is a good way to drive new designs and innovations and get new people involved in thinking about how to make a good N95,” said an aerosol expert at Virginia Tech who did not participate in the competition. Lindsaymer says. “We are one of the easiest, fastest and cheapest tools we can use to protect ourselves from COVID-19 and other illnesses, so people can wear high quality masks as easily as possible. And they aren’t specific to a particular variant, they work for everything. “

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