iMASC photo

Mask shortages put healthcare workers dealing with the coronavirus at risk. And despite emergency production of single-use N95 respirator masks, some doctors and nurses are still forced to reuse their face coverings until replacements arrive. But researchers in the United States might be close to offering an alternative. 

A team of scientists from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Brigham and Women’s Hospital developed a new face covering designed to block viral particles as effectively as the top-grade N95 mask—but it can be used over and over again.

Made of durable silicone rubber that can be safely sterilized, the mask includes two breathing holes, through which small N95 filters can be replaced after each use. The team estimates each mask could sell for US$15 and be worn up to 100 times, which also makes it a far more eco-friendly alternative.

“With this design, the filters can be popped in and then thrown away after use, and you’re throwing away a lot less material than an N95 mask,” says Adam Wentworth, a research engineer at Brigham and Women’s Hospital.

Making the mask reusable was just one of the extreme constraints facing the team. 

“We needed to really restrict ourselves to methods that could scale,” said Giovanni Traverso, assistant professor of mechanical engineering at MIT. 

The result: the injection molded autoclavable, scalable, conformable system, or iMASC. The team says not only can it be easily manufactured, it can withstand multiple common and low-cost sterilization methods, including being heated in an oven and soaked in bleach or isopropyl alcohol. 

The team also knew the project wouldn’t mean much unless the mask met end-user demands. So it tested it with about 20 healthcare workers, who gave it high ratings for fit and breathability. And when asked their preference between the new mask, a typical N95 mask and a standard surgical mask, most either said they had no preference or preferred iMASC.

The team published the results in the journal BMJ Open in July and is iterating the mask for maximum durability, comfort and efficacy. Once the final design is nailed down, the team will work with public- and private-sector organizations to bring the mask to market.