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The University of Southampton

Scientists invent ‘plasma brush’ to unlock repeat use of disposable face masks

Published: 18 December 2020
Face mask

Researchers at the University of Southampton are combining state-of-art plasma technologies and printed electronics to enable the safe reuse of face masks and respirators.

The engineering research programme is fabricating a dry decontamination method, known as a ‘plasma brush’, to treat masks that have made contact with coronaviruses.

The rapid decontamination system would allow people to safely re-wear previously single-use face masks, helping safeguard against a global PPE shortage, and minimise the thousands of tonnes of plastic waste pollution being generated by disposable masks.

Dr Min Kwan Kim from the Department of Aeronautical and Astronautical Engineering will direct the project over the next 18 months through new funding from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council.

Dr Kim, of the Astronautics research group, says: “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,” Minkwan says. “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.”

The new research is supported by Southampton’s Bharathram Ganapathisubramani, Professor of Experimental Fluid Mechanics in Aeronautics and Astronautics, and Bill Keevil, Professor of Environmental Healthcare within Biological Sciences, alongside project partners from George Washington University, the RB Group, JSP Ltd, Voltera and Air filtration Solutions.


The project is developing a procedure for decontaminating masks
The project is developing a procedure for decontaminating masks

A recent survey by estimates that 129 billion face masks are being used globally per month, with over 53 million face masks sent to landfill each day in the UK alone.

Scientists worldwide are currently exploring several methods for mask decontamination, including ultraviolet germicidal irradiation (UVGI), vaporous hydrogen peroxide (VHP) and moist heat. Although these methods can effectively inactivate coronavirus and other pathogens, the performance of decontaminated PPE can be negatively impacted.

Previous studies show that non-thermal plasma can rapidly inactivate 99.9 per cent of various viruses. However, until recently, non-thermal plasma has not seen widespread applications for viral decontamination because it could not be generated uniformly over large surface areas and required non-ambient carrier gases such as helium or argon.

In this project, Southampton researchers are alleviating these issues using a new plasma creation scheme with the aid of printed electronics. Scientists will use a microwave scattering method to quantify the energy intensity of plasmas and transmission electron microscopy to detect changes to the virus.

The effectiveness of indirect treatment using thin-layer DBD (dielectric barrier discharge) plasma will also be trialled when integrated on a resealable plastic bag, known as a ‘plasma bag’.

The system design and protocols for mask/respirator treatment will be made open-source, enabling other scientific teams to freely and rapidly recreate the plasma decontamination system.

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