UBC researchers develop first locally-sourced biodegradable N95 mask

In an effort to alleviate Canada’s high demand for personal protective equipment (PPE) in the wake of COVID-19, researchers at the BioProducts Institute at UBC have developed potentially the very first locally sourced biodegradable N95 mask in Canada and possibly the entire world.

“In every challenge there is an opportunity,” said researcher Dr. Orlando Rojas, scientific director of the BioProducts Institute and professor of chemical and biological engineering. “We have been working in the area of fibres and [wanted to explore] how fibre-based products can be used in creating the next generation of masks.”

The idea of creating this biodegradable mask, known as the Can-Mask, began when Rojas and chemical and biological engineering associate professor Dr. Johan Foster found masks and gloves littered around Vancouver and UBC.

“Current N95 masks are three layers, generally, and they’re made out of petroleum-based polymers so they filter very well but they don’t degrade,” said Foster.

“So you throw this on the ground or you put it in the trash and it will take decades, if not hundreds of years, to completely degrade.”

Given their skillset in bioproducts, the pair realized that creating a mask with the same filtration efficiency as the N95 mask but with the added benefit of biodegradability would make a huge difference.

Not only is the mask biodegradable, but the fibre material provides more comfort when in contact with our skin.
Not only is the mask biodegradable, but the fibre material provides more comfort when in contact with our skin. Courtesy Paul Joseph/UBC

The Can-Mask is composed of an active and a passive component. The active component filters the air particles and allows for breathability whereas the passive component is thicker and prevents air from getting through.

“It’s basically the same material but put together in different ways. In the passive component the fibres are very close to each other so the air doesn’t go through,” said Rojas. “We’re using nanotechnologies in the active part to achieve the performance that we need.”

Not only is the mask biodegradable, but the fibre material provides more comfort when in contact with our skin.

“It’s a living material that we take from trees,” said Rojas. “Unlike the fossil carbon materials that are processed in the petrochemical industry and are very foreign to our bodies … [such as] the polyesters, polypropylene, polyethylene and the other types of masks that are being used nowadays.”

Since masks are currently used by medical professionals as well as the general public, it’s important to consider the different demands by both groups.

Medical professionals, for example, require the N95 standard for masks, but biodegradability is not a priority as most medical facilities incinerate rather than compost their infected materials. However, nurses have complained about the discomfort caused by the elastic bands that go behind the ears.

Consumers on the other hand need a mask that is effective at preventing the communication of droplets and also benefit from biodegradability. Fine-tuning the Can-Mask to meet these demands can be very useful.

“Our intention is to make a medical grade and a consumer grade [mask] and deal with both because all of these masks are sourced internationally,” said Foster.

Currently, the prototype is at the fine-tuning stage. The research group is looking for funding opportunities as well as bridging with companies that will take over the manufacturing and production of this mask moving forward.

“The Can-Mask is just the springboard for new materials based on fibres that will be in demand,” said Rojas. “This is what we’re trying to learn and find out: ‘What is the best way to advance this concept?’”

Courtesy Paul Joseph/UBC