Technical face masks are believed to be a great solution in detecting Covid-19 infections. The new face mask prototype comes with sensor technology that can be used to create clothing that detects various pathogens, toxic chemicals, and many other health threats.
MIT and Havard engineers have come up with a prototype that can be used to accurately diagnose the individual wearing the mask with coronavirus within 90 minutes.
Researchers installed sensors on the inside of the mask aiming to detect any viral particles in the breath of the individual who wears the mask. The mask also features a small reservoir of water. This water is released at the push of a button whenever the person wearing the mask is ready to do the test.
The Havard University and MIT engineers designed the novel face mask that comes with small, disposable sensors that can be easily fitted into various masks and can be programmed to detect many other viruses.
These sensors are based on freeze-dried cellular machinery that the engineers had developed in the past for use in comprehensive and accurate paper diagnostics for viruses like Zika and Ebola. Based on a new study, the team of engineers proved that these sensors could be integrated into face masks and lab coats. If successful, it will help in monitoring health care workers’ exposure to various pathogens and other threats that may arise.
The Termeer Professor of Medical Engineering and Science in MIT’s Institute for Medical Engineering and Science (IMES) and Department of Biological Engineering, who is also the senior author of the study, James Collins, said:
“We’ve demonstrated that we can freeze-dry a broad range of synthetic biology sensors to detect viral or bacterial nucleic acids, as well as toxic chemicals, including nerve toxins. We envision that this platform could enable next-generation wearable biosensors for first responders, health care personnel, and military personnel.”
Once the face mask wearer activates the sensor to perform the test, the results are displayed on the inside of the mask for user privacy. One research scientist working at Harvard University’s Wyss Institute for Biologically Inspired Engineering, Peter Nguyen, together with a former postdoc at the Wyss Institute, and Luis Soenksen, who is a Venture Builder at MIT’s Abdul Latif Jameel Clinic for Machine Learning in Health, are the lead authors of the research.
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Wearable Sensors On Face Masks
These new wearable sensors and diagnostic face masks are entirely based on the technology that Collins started developing a few years ago. Seven years ago (2014), he proved that proteins and nucleic acids required to create synthetic gene networks designed to react to particular target molecules might be embedded into the paper.
Collins used that approach to develop paper diagnostics for the Zika and Ebola viruses. While working in Feng Zhang’s lab in 2017, he created another cell-free sensor system that he dubbed SHERLOCK, which is solely based on CRISPR enzymes. This system supports the highly sensitive detection of nucleic acids.
Notably, the cell-free circuit components that are mainly used in this system are freeze-dried. Studies show that they remain stable for months until they are rehydrated. They can only interact with their target molecule after being activated by water. In most cases, they target any DNA or RNA sequence although they can also interact with multiple other molecule types and produce a notable signal such as color change.
In recent months, Collins and his team started working on integrating the sensors into textiles, to design a lab coat for the health care workers and others with possible exposure to pathogens in their line of work.
For starters, Soenksen screened hundreds of different types of fabric, ranging from polyester and cotton to silk and wool. He performed all these tests aiming to determine which of the materials would be compatible with that type of sensor. He said:
“We ended up identifying a couple that is very widely used in the fashion industry for making garments. The one that was the best was a combination of polyester and other synthetic fibers.”
The researchers embedded the freeze-dried components into a tiny section of the synthetic fabric to make these wearable sensors. The components are surrounded by a ring of silicone elastomer. Experts say that compartmentalization prevents the sample from diffusing or evaporating away from the sensor. Engineers then developed a jacket embedded with nearly 30 of the sensors to demonstrate the technology.
They proved that a small splash of liquid that has viral particles, which mimics exposure to an infected person, may hydrate the freeze-dried cell components and then activate the sensor. Interestingly, these sensors can be used to create a variety of signals, like color change. The color change is visible with the naked eye, or a fluorescent or luminescent signal that can be accurately read using a handheld spectrometer.
The engineers also created a wearable spectrometer that could be infused into the fabric. From there it can be automatically read and the results are transmitted wirelessly to a mobile device. Nguyen said:
“This gives you an information feedback cycle that can monitor your environmental exposure and alert you and others about the exposure and where it happened.”
A Diagnostic Face Mask
Covid-19 started spreading around the world as the engineers were finishing up their work on the wearable sensors sometime in early 2020. They quickly decided to try using the new technology to come up with a diagnostic solution for the SARS-CoV-2 virus.
The researchers then embedded freeze-dried SHERLOCK sensors perfectly into a paper mask to create their diagnostic face mask. As is the case with wearable sensors, the freeze-dried features and components are surrounded meticulously with a silicone elastomer. In that scenario, the sensors are embedded on the inside of the mask, to enable them to detect viral particles in the breath of the face mask’s wearer.
This mask also features a small reservoir of water, which is released at the push of a button whenever the wearer wants to perform the test. The water hydrates the freeze-dried components of the SARS-CoV-2 sensor. It then analyzes the accumulated breath droplets on the inside of the face mask and provides a result within an hour-and-a-half. Nguyen stated:
“This test is as sensitive as the gold standard, highly sensitive PCR tests, but it’s as fast as the antigen tests that are used for quick analysis of Covid-19.”
All the prototype masks developed in this research have their sensors on the inside to detect a user’s status while simultaneously maintaining their privacy. Some other sensors are placed on the outside of the masks to determine exposure from the environment. The engineer researchers may also swap in the sensors for other pathogens like Ebola, influenza, and Zika. They also created sensors to detect organophosphate nerve agents.
“Through these demonstrations, we have essentially shrunk down the functionality of state-of-the-art molecular testing facilities into a format compatible with wearable scenarios across a variety of applications.”
Researchers have now filed for a patent on the technology and they hope to work with a firm to develop the sensors. The prototype face mask is most probably the first application that might become available in the market. Collins stated:
“I think the face mask is probably the most advanced and the closest to a product. We have already had a lot of interest from outside groups that would like to take the prototype efforts we have and advance them to an approved, marketed product.”
Johnson and Johnson Innovation JLABS; the Defense Threat Reduction Agency; the Ragon Institute of MGH, the Paul G. Allen Frontiers Group; Havard, the Patrick J. McGovern Foundation, MIT, and the Wyss Institute funded this research.
The AirPop Active+ Smart Face Mask
This smart face mask is connected with a fitness tracker app to help users boost their health status. The AirPop Active+ Smart strives to integrate the connectivity and data monitoring capabilities of a fitness tracker and the breathability and fit of the best face masks to come up with a type of hybrid super-wearable.
With face masks now a major part of most of our lives, there is a lot of innovation and tech-packed new designs coming up. Will.i.am and Honeywell announced their smart ‘Xupermask’ in June while Razer’s CEO said that its light-up, and voice amplifying Project Hazel mask concept will eventually become a reality.
But, AirPop Active+ tackles another niche. Its mask is designed specifically for high-intensity fitness use, aiming to surpass the best face masks for running that are currently on the market by providing integrated respiration monitoring through a connected companion mobile app.
The face masks’ design has an integrated Halo sensor that actively monitors the respiratory health of the person who wears it and the local air quality. Its companion app comprises an inhale/exhale LED ring that will track the wearers breathing rate as they exercise. It integrates with Apple HealthKit as well.
For now, the companion app is iOS and Android-supported. AirPop promises extensive comfort and superior breathability for high-intensity workouts, running, cycling, and all other athletic activities.
It functions with a replaceable insert filter that is designed to block dust, bacteria, and other particles. The mask comes with a 360-degree seal around the face, together with lightweight construction for comfortable wear. This AirPop Active+ Face Mask is now available in the market for $149.99 and comes with four replaceable filters. The filter refills are available at $24.99.
will.i.am and Honeywell’s Xupermask
On April 8, the Black Eyed Peas rapper, will.i.am, unveiled the Xupermask in collaboration with Honeywell. After the face mask was introduced to the market, it was immediately made available in stores, enabling people to acquire and use it almost instantly.
The smart mask has an active HEPA filtration system that is replaceable with filters within its breathing holes for daily and regular use. This mask offers a snug fit together with the bundled TWS Bluetooth earbuds that readily connect to smartphones, offering a solution to the earphones and face masks combination.
It also comes with air circulation technology that keeps the mouth and nose area cool and breathable. The smart mask comes with a price tag of $299.99 with the refill for filters coming at $27.99 for three filters that are perfect for around 30 days of use.