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ONTARIO: University researchers develop new plant-based mask material

New biodegradable material provides better filtration and breathability than traditional disposable masks
20211026 mask AS 1
Food science professor Loong-Tak Lim (left) and graduate student Singam Suranjoy Singh display the mask filter material.

A specialized material originally designed for food packaging could soon be used to create breathable, environmentally-friendly medical masks, thanks to research from the University of Guelph.

Food science professor Loong-Tak Lim has been studying electrospun fibres for around 15 years. The class of material is made from plant-based polymers which are stretched into fibres a few hundred times smaller than a human hair using electrostatic force. The result is a thin breathable non-woven material that can be used in food packaging to extend the shelf life perishable items like fruits and vegetables. 

During the pandemic, Lim and his lab have shifted their focus to explore the application of electrospun fibres as surgical mask filters. Ultimately, he and graduate student Singam Suranjoy Singh used a specialized technique to to create a new antimicrobial material that can be used to filter and destroy pathogens. As an added bonus the material is biodegradable, unlike traditional polyester and propylene masks.

"I think as a faculty member we have a social responsibility to help out with the pandemic," Lim said, explaining the university created grants for this purpose, one of which was used to fund his project.

The new non-woven filters with their small fibres are more breathable and more efficient at filtering microscopic pathogens like the SARS-CoV2-virus than traditional masks, Lim said in a media release. 

“N-95 mask filters are manufactured using a technology called melt spinning, which produces thicker fibres and a thicker membrane,” he said.

“Compared to N-95 mask filters, electrospun fibres have a lower pressure drop – the difference in pressure between the inside and outside of the mask – which is an indication that it is easier to breathe through.”

Lim says that to further increase the mask’s proficiency, the electrospun filter has been reinforced with silver particles, which have antimicrobial properties.

“As the fibre comes in contact with moisture from breathing, the silver particles release ions that destroy microorganisms,” he said.

The team plans to test the filter’s ability to destroy pathogens in different environments that simulate breathing. They will also investigate ways to integrate their non-woven electrospun filters into commercially available masks.

“The pandemic has changed consumer behaviour and, even after mask mandates lift, people may be more inclined to wear masks during cold and flu season,” said Lim. “With masks becoming a common practice going forward, we want to offer an effective and sustainable option for consumers.”