For most of us 2020 has been an unprecedented and challenging year due to the unexpected global pandemic which spread throughout the whole globe. Mentally it may be hard to conceptualize what it means to be in a truly global pandemic and how the virus could spread globally. Usually, when we think about the word ‘global’ the first thing that comes to mind is telecommunications because it is through telecommunications that we perceive the world to be global, as it allows to connect with the rest of the world simultaneously, through messaging and media. This simultaneous nature of telecommunications is what makes it ‘global’ because for something to be global it must spread very quickly through space. In much the same way electromagnetic waves travel quickly through space to allow telecommunications , the spread of the Corona virus is spread due to the fast diffusion of virus particles through air, thus making Corona virus a global phenomenon. Luckily, scientists at Northwestern University have come up with a simple way of altering the mask in such a way that would change the chemical composition of the exhaled droplets, thereby helping to halt the spread of this virus. According to Jiaxing Huang, Professor of Materials Science and Engineering at Northwestern University, the vulnerability of the virus lies in its structure: “virus structures are actually very delicate and ‘brittle,’ if any part of the virus malfunctions, then it loses the ability to infect.”
It is pricelessly this brittle nature of the virus that allowed researchers to come up with an idea that would lessen the spread of the virus by altering the composition of the exhaled droplets. As we know, the way to control the spread of the Corona virus is through various precautions such as social distancing and wearing a mask. However, one problem is that Corona virus is airborne and spreads through the diffusion of virus particles through space even from asymptomatic carriers, or people who may not show any symptoms of the Corona virus. “Where there is an outbreak of infectious respiratory disease, controlling the source is most effective in preventing viral spread,” said Haiyue Huang, an author in the study. “After they leave the source, respiratory droplets become more diffuse and more difficult to control.”
To do so, they introduced a chemical layer in the mask, which would modify the mask layer with anti-viral chemicals, thereby sanitizing the exhaled air of the mask wearer and controlling the exhaled droplets. After experimenting with several chemical substances, researchers selected two anti-viral and non-volatile chemicals that would create a local environments which would react with the exhaled air, and modify the composition of the droplets. Additionally, they ensured that these chemicals could not be vaporized and then inhaled by the wearer. Through growing a thin layer of the polymer on the mask, a favorable chemical environment was created. Testing various materials, researchers found that the droplets are indeed modified, with different results according to fabric. About 82% of the droplets were modified for tighter fabrics such as lint-free wipes and about 28% for very loose fabrics, such as medical gauze. Thus, this method seemed promising in modifying and sanitizing the air droplets.
One other promising aspect of this research is that, just like the Corona virus is a global pandemic, the researchers also hope that this effort would be a global one. “Our research has become an open knowledge, and we will love to see more people joining this effort to develop tools for strengthening public health responses” said Huang.