Self-cleaning re-useable plasma face masks

18th April 2023

By Mark Hall

Self-cleaning re-useable plasma face masks

New self-cleaning re-useable facemasks to end face mask litter and plastic waste

‘State of the art’ open-source tech to combat PPE issues
‘Groundbreaking’ use of non-thermal plasma could allow for safer re-use of masks

Over 40% increase in demand for PPE has generated enormous excess waste since pandemic began.

Plans will be made open-source to allow scientists worldwide to tackle single-use PPE shortages.

The worldwide reliance on face masks in the fight against the Covid-19 pandemic may soon become less, says waste collection company – as groundbreaking new technology may allow wearers to re-use the same mask safely.

Rapid decontamination technology being developed by researchers at the University of Southampton may mean that single-use masks, such as those worn by healthcare workers, carers and those in settings which require frequent changes to PPE to reduce transmission, may no longer be entering the waste disposal system on a colossal scale.

A state of the art ‘dry decontamination’ method uses printed electronics to create a material called non-thermal plasma, which can deactivate 99.9% of viruses very rapidly – and may eventually be used to create a decontaminating ‘pouch’ which used masks may be sealed into to allow the virus to be deactivated.

Dr Kim, of the Astronautics research group, said:

“Although many masks are made for single-use, they can be reused for a limited time if there is no risk of contamination from infectious particles on the surface.”

“Developing a safe decontamination method, therefore, can reduce acute shortages of masks and their environmental and economic burdens.

“This promising approach will use the viricidal capability of non-thermal plasmas to decontaminate masks without using biocidal chemicals with residual chemical residues. It will ensure the safe reuse of masks while maintaining structural and functional integrity.”

It’s a groundbreaking application of non-thermal plasma, a material that has previously been rejected for widespread use due to difficulties in both creating and applying it to the appropriate surface. Far from keeping this exceptional technological advancement to themselves, however, the team at the University at Southampton plans to make the plans for the decontamination treatment open source, allowing teams worldwide to use it themselves.

This incredible generosity could tackle a very real and sudden problem – that of an enormous increase in the single-use PPE used to fight the Covid-19 virus. Science magazine predicted the pandemic could be necessitating the use of 129 billion single-use masks worldwide per month, with 50 million a day in the UK alone heading to landfill, while the World Health Organisation has reported a 40% increase in the amount of PPE requested since the virus was first discovered. The sheer scale of PPE required is not only an environmental concern, however – it has lead to shortages across the world, placing healthcare workers and those most at risk in increasing danger of being exposed.

Worse still, a study released in July 2020 showed that this shortage is hitting low-income countries hardest – meaning the virus will have a disproportionately more devastating impact on communities that are already least-equipped to handle the financial and medical pressures of tackling a pandemic.

The team at the University of Southampton, led by Dr Min Kwan Kim and funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, maybe the answer – not just for the current pandemic, but for easing PPE shortages and safety concerns during outbreaks of other viruses in future.

Mark Hall spokesperson for landfill waste diversion experts says the firm is optimistic about the technology, both in the fight against Covid-19 and for the future of single-use items in healthcare generally.

He said: “They say innovation in science is often driven by crisis, and that is shown in very sharp relief here – it is truly extraordinary that the work being done by the Astronautics team at University of Southampton has the potential not only to address global shortages of PPE and dramatically reduce the environmental impact of our single-use PPE, but also help redress the balance of income inequality between countries and their ability to tackle future health crises.”

“Globally, we need to be able to respond to a crisis of any kind in a way that doesn’t undermine the very real work being done to reduce reliance on landfills, eliminate single-use items and plastics, and address environmental pressures.

“While responding to a sudden, urgent shift in need for items like PPE, it’s easy to let our broader goals slip beyond the horizon, but innovations such as this help us create robust, environmentally friendly ways of meeting demand without making environmental sacrifices.”