When the Nanos Foundation approached BYU with an idea for a project that could raise the efficacy of cloth masks, the university jumped at the opportunity.
Will Vahle, director at the Nanos Foundation, said that he was just trying to develop this technology for fun. He then realized how many gaps it filled, waiting for someone to pick up on it and put it to use due to the demand for masks.
“Come May we were like, ‘Why is nobody doing this?’ ” Vahle said. “So I put together a technical primer just to kind of put my ideas to paper and floated it around to a few friends, one of whom is a senior member of the (LDS) church and he put us in touch with someone at BYU.”
He explained what was being proposed to the university and it moved forward. Vahle gave credit to BYU on this front adding that the foundation wanted to partner with a reputable university to help propel the project.
For BYU, many of its engineering students had lost internships due to COVID-19, so officials saw this opportunity as a way for students to have an alternative.
“There hasn’t been a lot of innovation in N95 masks in a long time, there just hasn’t been any drivers to do that,” said Anton Bowden, BYU mechanical engineering professor. “They’re made at a few specific factories, in very large quantities and so competition has been very minimal, it’d be really difficult for somebody to break into that market, but because there has been this need for them everywhere, it opened up opportunities to innovate. That’s what this project is all about, taking a technology that has been around for a long time but hasn’t been used in this application, which is this electronic-spinning.”
For the project, students at BYU took a high voltage source and used it to pull these fibers out of recycled polymers, which creates an electro-static charge. The nanofibers are very efficient at filtering things out, which allows for more airflow compared to other masks.
It also helps that this method is extremely cheap.
The high voltage energy source needed for this project would normally cost approximately $10,000, according to Bowden.
Luckily Vahle had figured out that old televisions could be used as the energy source, dropping the price considerably. Add in a bike pump, a soda bottle, acetone, recycled plastics and the nanofibers can be generated.
Along with this, the static electricity produced in production of the nanofibers also attracts virus particles.
“That’s one of the cool pieces about this is that the electro-static attachment is what allows it to function well but still be porous enough that you can breathe through it,” Bowden said.
The nanofibers can be spun into inserts for masks as well as seeing the fibers put directly onto already existing masks.
Through the process, cloth masks can be just as effective as N95 masks. As far as particulate capture, the nanofibers are over 95% effective.
While talking about the project, Bowden gave all the credit to his students.
“They’ll tell you they learned a lot,” Vahle said. “They got a real experience of what the reality of research and development is like. If you’re doing it right, the textbooks are actually useful but at the same time it’s 10% inspiration, 90% perspiration.”
Along with this, another group of BYU students is currently working to help get this technology out to countries like India, where masks are even harder to come by.
“In the U.S. there are probably fewer people that are going to set this up in their garage but more people that want to be able to get effective N95 masks here,” Bowden said. “Nanos is kind of helping launch a startup here that will partner with local partners and start creating masks using this technology. We’ve also had other folks within the state reach out to us about partnering with us to use the technology locally for them. There’s some local healthcare entities that want to get involved in this, and we’re excited about that. It’s launching locally here, it’s launching internationally, and we’re just excited to have the students be part of something that can get started up so quickly and make an impact on a problem we’re seeing right here, right now.”
The Nanos Foundation is hoping that the low costs and effectiveness of the technology will drive prices down across the board while making quality masks accessible for all who want one.