MIT designs reusable masks as effective as N95s, prices start at $15


Scientists at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) have designed a reusable face mask that can be sterilized and worn over and over, while providing as much protection as an N95 mask. 

In fact, their new mask, made of silicon and rubber, incorporates N95 filters, but is made out of slick materials that are highly impermeable but is far easier and faster to sterilize. 

And it’s cheap. Once it’s ready to be shipped, the protective gear, dubbed the iMASC, will likely only cost about $15, according to Fast Company. 

The team behind the iMASC plans to get it approved by the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and sell it to hospitals – and eventually the general public – through a company they’re currently setting up, but it’s not yet clear when the mask will be available for purchase.

Between March and May, Americans used an estimated 140 million N95 masks as coronavirus kicked off across the US. 

N95s respirators, made of tough, usually synthetic woven fibers, are the gold standard of respiratory safety. 

Their dense compositions is one of the few rated to block tiny viral particles. 

But the US government’s stockpile of the masks was quickly depleted in the early days of the pandemic, the Defense Production Act had to be invoked to make tens of millions more N95s and officials pleaded with Americans not to buy the respirators in an effort to ensure that there were enough to protect frontline workers.

Anticipated shortages of personal protective equipment were averted, but Americans are still left wearing only cloth face coverings, and health care workers have burned through millions morre N95 respirators. 

N95s can be sterilized without losing their integrity, but the process requires specialized equipment and can be time consuming and costly. 

So the MIT team sought to come up with a less wasteful, easier to clean, but equally cheap and effective solution. 

The material they landed on was silicone rubber, a synthetic commonly used in the medical industry, that can be sterilized easily by a number of different methods,  including using rubbing alcohol, steaming, radiation and dry heat. 

Not only did their new mask need to be easy to clean while blocking out tiny particles, it needed to be designed in such a way that its manufacturing could inexpensively scaled up to make thousands if not millions of copies. 

The iMASC gets its name, in part, from having just that capacity. The acronym stands for Injection Molded Autoclavable, Scalable, Conformable.

The rubber can easily be injected into a mold and printed again, and again, and again. 

To allow the wearer to breathe while filtering out virus particles, it has two slots where replaceable disks of N95 material can be slotted in and removed when they’re dirty. 

‘With this design, the filters can be popped in and then thrown away after use, and you’re throwing away a lot less material than an N95 mask,’ said study co-author Dr Adam Wentworth. 

The team, composed of mechanical engineers and doctors at MIT and Harvard’s Brigham and women’s Hospital, had 20 health care workers in Brigham and women’s emergency room and oncology clinic put the masks through the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSH) fit test. 

For all 20 subject, the mask stayed in place as they went through various tasks and movements. When scented substances were sprayed into the surrounding air through a nebulizer, none of the subjects could taste or smell it, indicating the masks provided a tight seal.

And the participants rated the mask well for comfort, saying they liked it as well or better than a surgical mask. 

While an N95 mask can only be sanitized some 20 times, and only with special peroxide-spraying equipment, silicone can be cleaned many ways, many times before it degrades. 

The masks will cost about $15 a piece for hospitals, which is substantially more than the  $3 to $7 charged for an N95, but the team believes they’ll be money- and material-saving in the long run – and it certainly seems that staying safe amid the pandemic is a long-game. 

‘We know that Covid is really not going away until a vaccine is prevalent,’ said another of the mask’s developers, Dr James Byrne. 

‘I think there’s always going to be a need for masks, whether it be in the health care setting or in the general public.’

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