The inexpensive solution turns commonly available plastic into much needed protective mesh.

By Jelisa Castrodale
December 09, 2020
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Pink Cotton Candy
Credit: Winter_Studios/Getty Images

At the very least, all of the... everything that happened this year has brought a number of new words, abbreviations, and concepts into our vocabularies. Unless you worked in healthcare or in assorted laboratory settings, you probably didn't have daily conversations about N95s and PPE, and most of us didn't know how to pronounce R0, let alone use it in a sentence.

The availability of N95 masks and other pieces of personal protective equipment has been a near-constant challenge this year, but thankfully, there are people out there working on low-cost solutions, and innovative ways to prevent future PPE shortages. Mahesh Bandi, a graduate student in physics at the Okinawa Institute of Science, is one of those people.

According to Good News Network, Bandi has discovered a way to use the "centrifugal spinning method" to transform pieces of widely available plastic into an electrocharged mesh that has similar filtration properties to commercially produced respirator masks. In other words, he has slightly modified a commercial cotton candy machine to upcycle pieces of plastic into cheap-but-effective DIY versions of N95 masks.

Bandi details the process in an article called "Electrocharged facepiece respirator fabrics using common materials," which was recently published in the journal Proceedings of the Royal Society A: Mathematical, Physical and Engineering Sciences. Basically, he put the plastic in his souped-up cotton candy machine, heated it, and then flattened it between two panes of glass. The resulting electrocharged panels were then placed on an air ionizer for 10 minutes to "improve the fabric’s static charge characteristics."

He tested the filtration capabilities of the fabric panels by layering them inside an existing surgical mask, and by stacking them inside a 3D printed, open-source N95-ish mask. The latter proved to be more effective, due to the tighter fit against the wearer's face.

Although the process is more streamlined and accessible than the current N95 production methods—which don't typically involve machines found in State Fair concession stands—it does require access to a 3-D printer. But still, we need Bandi's kind of thinking, to help us through the next few months of the coronavirus crisis, and for whatever inevitably comes next.

"Although the COVID-19 pandemic provided the impetus for the current effort, face masks may well become a mainstay of human social interactions going forward," he wrote. "On the order of two viruses jump across from animals to humans per year with most animals exhibiting viral richness showing propensity for close human contact. If even a small fraction of those viruses result in asymptomatic viral shedding in human exhalation (breathing, coughing or sneezing), face mask protection at the population level becomes a necessary means of protection [...] It is hoped that this effort will help communities with face mask protection during such pandemics."