17-01-2022 | | By Robin Mitchell
Recently, researchers have developed a new sensor that can be attached to most face masks that detect if the user is wearing the mask correctly. What challenges do masks face, what did the researchers develop, and could it be used for more than just COVID control?
The ongoing COVID pandemic (2019-2022) has shaken the world in nearly every aspect of life; international travel essentially stopped, millions lost jobs, and businesses struggled to stay afloat. On top of this, government regulation worldwide sought to control the virus, with some taking more drastic action than others (such as fines for unvaccinated individuals and restricted social contact). Still, the one almost universal policy was mandatory masks.
Unfortunately, governments and individuals misunderstood how masks work, the type of mask needed, and what they protect against. Most thought that masks would protect individuals from catching a virus, but the truth behind masks is that they are primarily designed to prevent infected individuals from spreading the virus. That does not mean that a mask cannot protect a wearer from airborne particles, but their main goal is to catch the virus from an individual before it can be spread into the surrounding air.
This misunderstanding and lack of data surrounding mask usage resulted in the vast majority of mask wearers misusing masks. The first challenge that many face is having the right mask as a simple piece of cloth or dust mask is unlikely to stop airborne viruses. N95 masks are considered the gold standard in virus control and consist of multiple layers, including a dust filter, moisture barrier, and fine particle filter. Some mask wearers made this problem worse by using masks with valved vents meaning that exhaled air was utterly unfiltered.
The second challenge mask users faced was getting their masks fitted correctly. Wearing an N95 mask is only effective if there are no air gaps with all air going through the mask. However, countless wearers would either not cover their nose, have the wrong size of the mask, or have gaps on the perimeter.
The third challenge with masks is that they are only effective if disposed of after use and if the user does not touch their mask. As the mask is trapping most of the airborne viruses being breathed out by an infected individual, touching the mask can quickly spread infection through surfaces and human contact.
Researchers from Northwestern University have recently developed a small device that can be mounted into most masks and provide data regarding air pressure, temperature, and heart rate that is then streamed to a nearby device. The idea behind the device is to try and simplify the mask-fitting process that can often be time-consuming, while also warning the user when their mask is being worn incorrectly.
The device is powered by a small coin cell, but it is also able to harvest energy from its surroundings to increase battery life and is also able to enter a deep sleep mode when not in use. This allows the device to operate for extended periods without needing to be interfered with.
Determining an adequately fitted mask is done by looking at the various physiological readings such as air pressure and temperature. Simply put, a properly fitted mask would see an increase in air pressure during exhalation as air cannot easily escape (air must go through the mask’s fibres). A poorly fitted mask would see air being able to quickly rush in and out of gaps, resulting in smaller changes in air pressure.
When connected to a smartphone, the data can be analysed and warn the user if the sensor detects that their mask is failing. Furthermore, detecting heart and breathing rate allows for a smartphone to determine if the individual wearing the mask is experiencing fatigue or other potential health issues.
The device is being targeted for use by medical professionals who are arguably the most exposed individuals to COVID. Such a smart device could help limit their exposure and better control the spread of COVID. Secondary exposure is often a challenge for hospitals where a patient goes in with one condition only to contract another through infection or contamination.
But the use of smart masks could be used well beyond pandemic control; they could be vital for those who work in hazardous environments. Many industrial environments can have potentially dangerous atmospheres from mechanical processes (dust) or chemical processes (vapour). The use of smart masks could help ensure that their masks are being used correctly, reducing exposure to such environments.
The so-called “facebit” is still in development, but the results are promising, and it won’t be long before we see it used in trials in hospitals. In the future, small sensors could even be produced in mass quantities, which makes any piece of worn material smart where energy is obtained from the surrounding environment without the need for a battery.