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Case studies

Commercialising self-cleaning face masks to combat COVID-19 waste

NPL helped Breathe Smarter identify the best materials to manufacture self-cleaning electronic face masks to reduce waste from the disposal of single wear face coverings.

Case study

The challenge

Breathe Smarter Ltd is a new company that plans to manufacture electronic face masks which will be self-cleaning and have recyclable, environmentally friendly components. These masks include a component which reacts to light and removes active viruses in the air. 

It is estimated that, globally, as many as 3 million masks are used every minute, most of which are disposable masks made from plastic microfibers. During the COVID-19 pandemic, the company pivoted to combat the increase in waste caused by disposable masks while ensuring protection against the virus by developing a new self-cleaning electronic face mask. While having a clear idea of design, the company had not yet identified the best materials to ensure the product performed as desired. Breathe Smarter Ltd asked for NPL’s help to identify suitable materials for the product by investigating different options, with and without optical fibres, and to inform the fabrication and manufacturing process.  

The solution

NPL evaluated the masks in three ways: mask / material breathability tests, liquid penetration tests and filtration efficiency tests. First, there was an assessment of the breathability of the masks, and the materials involved, which are bound with titanium oxide interwoven with optical fibres, a material that provides the active virus prevention characteristic of the masks.  

Second, the liquid penetration, or splash resistance, of the masks was investigated. This process is a prerequisite to achieving Type IIR certification, a crucial milestone on the road to commercialisation.  

Thirdly, the filtration efficiency was investigated, to determine how effective the masks may be at removing active viruses in the air. This involved using aerosolised NaCl particles, which indicates how effectively virus particles, or airborne particulates in general, are filtered out.  

NPL’s testing helped reveal which materials did not work as well as required, eliminating them, and enabling the design process to be refined.

The impact

Breathe Smarter Ltd’s electronic, self-cleaning face masks could be much more effective at protecting against disease compared to face masks currently in use, as they actively prevent coronavirus particles from passing the face mask – a characteristic that disposable face masks do not have. 

As the masks are self-cleaning, they do not need to be replaced as often, which reduces the waste that has been observed with PPE throughout the pandemic. 

The results of NPL’s testing gave the company a better understanding of which materials would be most suitable for their self-cleaning face masks. This informed new designs, accelerated product development, and brought commercialisation of the product forward. The company now estimates that it is close to entering a market where they can sell hundreds of thousands of their face masks.  

Better masks are at the forefront of reducing person-to-person transmission of coronavirus. This improved face mask technology could help reduce the spread of coronavirus and facilitate the transition back to socialising and other aspects. 

What the customer says

When the pandemic struck we changed our priorities to assess whether we could make masks with self-cleaning capabilities in order to extend the life of face masks and reduce the number of masks being thrown away. It was important to us that NPL had already identified the need to have experts to assist mask developers and manufacturers, like ourselves. This what brought us to the Measurement for Recovery (M4R) scheme.

Norman Ratcliffe - COO at Breathe Smarter Ltd

BreatheSmarter Ltd is a new company that plans to manufacture electronic face masks which will be self-cleaning and have recyclable, environmentally friendly components. These masks include a component which reacts to light and removes active viruses in the air. 

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