Researchers develop rechargeable, custom-fitting N95 masks

Photo of someone wearing a rechargeable N95 mask
Jeffrey Urban/Courtesy
According to a press release from the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, the new N95 mask model can be custom-fitted and 3D-printed. Additionally, the mask’s mesh filter, which is responsible for trapping virus particles, can be recharged, the press release states.

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With personal protective equipment, or PPE, continuing to be in short supply due to the COVID-19 pandemic, researchers from the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and UC Berkeley have developed a rechargeable, custom-fitting N95 mask.

Created by Peter Hosemann, campus Ernest S. Kuh chair in engineering and faculty scientist in Berkeley Lab’s Materials Sciences Division, along with Jeff Urban, Berkeley lab facility director and inorganic nanostructures facility lead at the lab’s Molecular Foundry, the new N95 mask model is capable of being recharged similar to a cellphone, allowing for longer-term reuse. According to a Berkeley Lab press release, the model can also be custom-fitted and 3D-printed.

This design would not only aid essential workers during the pandemic but could also be beneficial when the air quality is poor, including during severe fire seasons, according to Urban.

“When the pandemic hit, anyone in the sciences felt that they have an urgent duty to find a way to contribute,” Urban said in an email. “Getting into the details of what an N95 mask was and what it did (and didn’t!) offer, was a very useful experience.”

Despite being considered the “gold standard” in protecting an individual from viral infections, including COVID-19, traditional N95 masks should not be worn for long periods of time, according to the press release.

Over time, as individuals exhale, moisture is released that can cause the mask’s virus-trapping fibers to wear, making it less effective, the press release states.

Additionally, traditional N95 masks should ideally form an adequate seal around an individual’s nose and mouth so particles do not enter the respiratory system, according to the press release. Urban added that for many, N95 masks are challenging to breathe in.

“We are excited that our approach could offer a more livable PPE solution,” Urban said in the email. He added that the lack of breathability and customized fit “makes it challenging to adopt for those in physical, demanding professions, which is most of what the front line worker jobs are in service and medicine.”

The new design will allow the mask’s mesh filter, which traps virus particles, to be recharged. This is especially critical, as masks and other forms of PPE have been in short supply due to the pandemic, according to the press release.

Since the masks can be 3D-printed, individuals at schools and hospitals can manufacture their own on short notice, according to Hosemann.

“We, like many others, saw the shortcomings in the PPE (personal protective equipment) supply chain and even in the functionality of what was available,” Urban added in the press release. “We felt this was an important area to focus on.”

Contact Mallika Seshadri at [email protected] and follow her on Twitter at @SeshadriMallika.