The shortage of masks had led to skyrocketing prices in the market. Finding a cost-effective alternative that recycles heaps of plastic is killing two birds with one stone.
Researchers at IIT Mandi develop high-efficiency face masks out of waste plastic bottles. The PET bottles were successfully converted into a nanofiber membrane. This membrane is layered with nylon on both sides to create the mask. Research scholars Ashish Kakoria and Sheshang Singh Chandel produced the mask under the guidance of Prof. Sumit Sinha Ray. The process cost them Rs. 25 per piece on the laboratory level. It is expected that the cost would be halved when manufactured commercially.
India generates nearly 26,000 tonnes of plastic waste every day, making us the 15th biggest plastic polluter in the world. And the coronavirus pandemic is only going to add to the garbage heap. Hence, making face masks out of waste plastic that is not only cheaper but also arguably better than what we currently have is a win-win situation for us.
The waste plastic is first converted into nanofibers. To extract the fibres, they shredded the waste plastic bottles and dissolved the pieces using a combination of solvents. Later, they extruded the nanofibers from the solution. The nanofiber membrane so developed is 250 times thinner than a human hair. As a result, they can remove minute air particles with 98% efficiency. Hence, making these masks far more effective than the commercially available melt-blown masks.
Prof. Sinha and the team had been developing an efficient filter out of this nanofiber membrane since 2018. By March this year, they were almost close to finding their final product. Suddenly the country went into lockdown there was a dire need of masks. They decided to focus their efforts on creating a face mask out of this developed membrane. Mr Kakoria and Mr Chandel continued to work during the lockdown while observing the necessary distancing norms and safety precautions in the lab. They are eager to get their work for public service. The team is looking for an industrial partner to manufacture the membrane and the masks on an industrial scale.
Prof. Sumit was able to give us a few minutes of his time and help us get more information regarding this project and its future. Below is a snippet:
How breathable is plastic?
A lot of people are not aware of it, all your masks except the cotton one are made from plastic. And those masks are mostly made from propylene, which is a form of plastic. However, these masks we have developed are more breathable due to their unique architecture. People can wear these masks for long durations with ease.
Can these masks be washed and reused? Can they be recycled?
Yes, they are washable. We’ve been reusing these nanofiber-based masks for quite some time. I’ve personally used them for about 40 days. We’ve also been using the PET derived ones for quite a few days and they are also washable. We’re also trying to come full circle by trying to take the nanofibre membranes from the used masks and make fibres once again. We’ve haven’t completely zeroed in on that yet. So in terms of reusability, we’re trying to make it cyclic. But that is still in the process.
How many of these masks have been produced and deployed?
We’ve only developed a handful and the basic reason for that it’s a small lab team. All we have made are prototypes. We are looking for industrial partners. For regular testing purposes, we make quite a few membranes, but as an entire mask, not many.
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When can we expect the product to hit the market? How easy is the process to get it to market?
Scaling up with this method is not a big issue. An industry with an adequate electrospinning line could scale it within a month, especially those industries which have their mask-making units. The industries which do not have the technique available with them, they’ll have to acquire it and have to grow, so that may take a bit of time. But in the most conducive environment and if everything lines up perfectly, we should be able to get it up and running in two to two and a half months.
Is there anything specific you are looking for in an industrial partner?
This needs to be taken out of the lab and given to the general public at the earliest. Hence, right now any willing industrial partner will do. We are ideally looking for partners who would be in it for the long run. It would be ideal to team up with someone who isn’t just working to mitigate the current problem. We need to realize that the virus will stay around for long and the requirement will stay likewise.