Patent application filed for innovation

Masks may become self-cleaning, with Israeli scientist’s USB-powered hack

Yair Ein-Eli says that by making disposable masks reusable, he’ll help solve international shortages, boost hygiene and protect the environment

Nathan Jeffay is The Times of Israel's health and science correspondent

Two masks that have been modified by Yair Ein-Eli to make them self-cleaning (courtesy of The Technion - Israel Institute of Technology)
Two masks that have been modified by Yair Ein-Eli to make them self-cleaning (courtesy of The Technion - Israel Institute of Technology)

An Israeli scientist has invented technology that aims to make face masks clean themselves using power from a phone charger.

Yair Ein-Eli has applied for a US patent for his innovation, which he says will boost hygiene and mitigate mask shortages. A poll just conducted by the Washington Post found that some 66 percent of American health workers surveyed said their workplaces face shortages of the masks that are most suitable for protection from the coronavirus.

“Our idea could change masks from disposable items into gadgets that people clean, meaning they wouldn’t need replacing so regularly and hospitals wouldn’t need such large supplies,” said Ein-Eli, dean of the faculty of materials science and engineering at the Technion – Israel Institute for Technology. He estimated that his cleaning mechanism can be added at around 90 cents (3 shekels) per mask.

The self-cleaning masks will look like regular face coverings, apart from an input for a USB cable. This is to power the heating element inside the mask, which gets it hot enough to kill germs. This is the only modification needed to regular masks to make them self-cleaning, Ein-Eli said.

Infra-red heat map of masks. The hot areas (yellow and red) indicate that the carbon fibers provide complete coverage. (courtesy of the Technion – Israel Institute of Technology)

“We have inserted a heating element of carbon fibers, and connected it to a USB input like one used to charge cellphone,” Ein-Eli told The Times of Israel. “The element can heat the mask to 65 to 70 degrees Celsius (149°-158° Fahrenheit), and it heats anything absorbed in the layers of the mask.”

He said that a 15- to 30-minute heating cycle would be enough to clean a mask. “If you are in your car and take your mask off, you can simply connect it to your cigarette lighter charger, and then put it back on as if it’s a new mask,” said Ein-Eli.

Yair Ein-Eli, dean of the faculty of materials science and engineering at the Technion – Israel Institute for Technology (courtesy of the Technion – Israel Institute for Technology)

He is hoping to license the technology to companies that will introduce it to their designs, initially for masks of the N95 grade and higher, which are intended for health professionals. “We’re aiming initially at medical staff who need masks and need to know that they are well-cleaned and working and functioning,” he said, adding that he then envisages it being marketed to the general public.

Ein-Eli got interested in masks by accident, in March. “I received a shipment via UPS, and asked the delivery man why he’s wearing a mask,” he recalled. “Then I asked how long he’s been wearing it for, and he said four days. I could see it had been used lots — it was really dirty, and that’s clearly a problem.”

An expert on battery technology, Ein-Eli initially wanted to add a battery to masks to enable them to self-clean. “I develop materials for batteries, and thought that perhaps I can insert a battery to masks in order to generate heat to clean the mask,” he said. “But I realized it would become very heavy and regulations wouldn’t allow it.”

Then, he hit on the idea of a charger. While it would have been simple to develop the tech for a custom charger, as he could have selected any wattage, he wanted the mask to be convenient, which meant it needed to be compatible with any phone charger.

Ein-Eli said: “It was very difficult to find the right carbon fiber that would reach the temperature at this power output at the 10 watts of a USB charger. We have 40 carbon fibers in our lab, and I spent four days looking through them, and still didn’t find one.”

But then he identified the right material, and is now hoping that his patent application will be approved. He said: “I’m expecting that this won’t only help hospitals that are trying to source protective equipment, but also the environment, by stopping many masks from being thrown away.”

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