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BYU Engineers Create Breathable Nanofiber Mesh To Improve Mask Efficacy

A close up look at some nanofibers recently spun and placed on a disk for testing. (BYU Photo)

PROVO, Utah – A group of Brigham Young University researchers, in collaboration with the Nanos Foundation, has created a nanofiber mesh that can be added to regular cloth face masks and block 90-to-99% of particles.

Researchers said the nanofiber inserts give regular cloth masks the filtration level of an N95 mask while being more breathable.

“Not only is it hard to find an N95 mask these days, but the best mask is useless if you won’t wear it,” said Will Vahle, director at the Nanos Foundation. “Our nanofiber membranes are six times easier to breathe through than existing N95 masks, making them cooler, drier, and more comfortable.”

The material is created through a process called electrospinning, which takes a plastic polymer and stretches it into nanofibers “using an electrical current to move a droplet of the polymer downward through a needle. As the droplet accelerates, it stretches into a very small fiber that retains a static charge.”

“Those nanofibers randomly land on a collector to create a sort of non-woven mesh,” said Katie Varela, a BYU mechanical engineering senior on the project team.

Varela said the remaining static charge attracts viruses, which also have a charge, and prevents them from passing through the nanofibers.

“When they come close to your mask, they will be statically attracted to the mask and will not be able to go through it, and so it prevents you from inhaling viruses,” she said.

Both nanofibers and passing viruses have a static charge, which means they’ll be attracted to each other. (BYU)

The group plans to make the design open source, meaning other organizations can use the design to create more mask filters and improve on their design.

“We had our own proprietary nanofiber production process, but we realized, hey, we have some expertise in this — why don’t we get this together and release a version that anybody can do?” Vahle said.

University officials said the nanofiber filters are not available yet, but the foundation is working on that.

Varela and other members of the group hope the project can have an immediate, positive impact.

“This experience makes things very real,” said Varela. “I’m really glad that I’m able to help with this fight against COVID-19 to help people all around the world and in my community.”

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