With the spread of the coronavirus, face masks have become a staple in everyday life. Wearing face masks and maintaining social distancing has become a new standard as countries attempt to reopen. However, for some segments of the population like children, the elderly and the hearing impaired, wearing a mask is a major obstacle to communication. Therefore, swiss scientists have come up with a fully transparent surgical mask, called the Hello Mask, that filters out microorganisms but allows facial expressions to be seen.
This transparent surgical mask is intended to replace the tri-fold green or white surgical masks that healthcare workers usually wear. This protection can be worn by anyone, although they’re designed primarily to make the contact between doctors and patients less impersonal. These masks are important for communication, for seeing the entire facial expression, especially a reassuring smile during dental visits. Children can be very anxious at the dental office for a lot of understandable reasons, but part of that anxiety is around not being able to see the dentist and the staff member’s face. The challenge can be taken away with these kinds of mask. Also, for the group of people with severe to profound hearing loss, this would make the biggest difference. Being able to see someone’s lips move can provide greater access and understanding, even if you can’t read lips. Thus, it lowers the risk of miscommunication.
Existing prototypes of transparent masks are just normal masks with fabric replaced by clear plastic. It is bulky and uncomfortable as the plastic isn’t porous. This makes it hard for the wearer to breathe and fogs up easily. The Swiss Federal Laboratories for Materials Science and Technology (EMPA) and Swiss Federal Institute of Technology Lausanne (EPFL) researchers spent two years finding the right combination of transparency, resistance and porosity. They eventually came up with a membrane made from a biomass-based polymer developed specifically for this application. The mask is made using a common method called electrospinning, where an electric force is used to draw polymer fibers. The polymer fibers are 100 nm apart, which is the same spacing used in conventional masks – small enough to filter out viruses and bacteria but large enough to let air through.
Klaus Schönenberger, one of the researchers, derived the motivation of developing these masks, from 2015 Ebola outbreak in West Africa. “It was touching to see that nurses, covered from head to toe in personal protective equipment, pinned photos of themselves on their chests so that patients could see their faces,” he said in a statement on the their project website.
Thierry Pelet, formerly a project manager at the Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne School of Life Science, approached Schönenberger to help develop the mask.
“The Hello masks are made at 99% from a biomass derivative, and we’ll keep working on them until they’re completely eco-friendly,” Pelet says. This transparent surgical mask will be disposable for optimal efficacy, like the existing surgical mask.
The research on Hello Mask was initially funded by close to a dozen non-profit organizations and later by an Innosuisse grant. While the masks will first be sold to the medical community – dentists have also expressed an interest – they may eventually be marketed to the general public. The product launch could take place in early 2021.
- EPFL- Official Website