With the COVID-19 pandemic’s second wave raging on in Canada and the vaccine not yet fully developed, a researcher at the University of Alberta has been recognized by Mitacs, a Canadian non-profit organization, for her groundbreaking work in developing a salt-coated mask that kills viruses and bacteria within five minutes of it coming into contact with the surface. Mitacs receives its funding from the federal government, most provinces and Yukon, for honoring researchers from various academic institutions.
Originally hailing from Italy, Ilaria Rubino, a recent Ph.D. graduate from the department of chemical and materials engineering at the University of Alberta, has worked with a biomedical engineer and assistant professor Hyo-Jick Choi on the first-ever, one-of-a-kind coating to be used on respirators and surgical masks.
Rubino’s general goal was to develop a kind of technology that could help with health issues globally. While researching, her group found a gap in the technology of the masks wherein pathogens can survive. She explains that a solution of mostly salt and water coats her polypropylene mask’s first or middle layer and dissolves the droplets before they penetrate the face covering. Then, as the liquid droplets evaporate, the salt crystals form a spiky structure and damage the virus or bacteria within a mere span of five minutes.
One of the challenges researchers identified while developing this technology is that people touch their faces very frequently. Therefore, the speed factor was an important parameter to be kept in mind. Masks are often used once and then thrown away. She states that the goal for developing this mask was to invent a technology that was capable of making the pathogens inactive upon contact, as it was very apparent that the pathogens survive once collected in the mask. Furthermore, the revolutionary salt-coated mask is very breathable and reusable.
Five years after starting this project, Rubino collaborated with a researcher from Georgia State University in Atlanta to move it forward. She said that the fundamental idea behind creating these masks is to serve as an alternative to the surgical masks worn by healthcare workers. They can be safely worn and used multiple times without the fear of contamination or the need to dispose of them after just a few hours of use. Rubino confirms that this technology could potentially be used for N-95 respirators.
This fantastic product is expected to be introduced in the market next year after the regulatory approval procedure. Rubino believes that this mask can also stop the spread of other illnesses, such as influenza and strep throat, in addition to the coronavirus.
New and Exciting Technology
An epidemiologist and associate professor of medicine at McMaster University in Hamilton, Dr. Catherine Clase, declared this “exciting” technology would prove to be very beneficial and help the demographic immensely. Dr. Clase, also a member of the Centre of Excellence in Protective Equipment and Materials from the engineering department, said that when Rubino had initially begun her work, not much research had been done on personal protective equipment. Clase further added that due to the salt mask’s reusability factor, it could address any supply issues. Moreover, it will decrease the footprint for making and distributing, and then disposing of every mask.
In its recent advent, the Public Health Agency of Canada recommended that all non-medical masks consist of a minimum of three layers, with the middlemost layer being a removable one, and constructed from a non-woven, washable polypropylene fabric, which improves filtration.
A reputed aerosol scientist in the University of Alberta’s mechanical engineering department, Conor Ruzycki, confirmed that Rubino’s research and innovation added to the recent development on masks regarding the rise of the COVID-19 situation. Ruzycki works in a lab, evaluating the infiltration efficiencies of different materials for respirators and masks. He is also a member of the Alberta group Masks4Canada, led by physicians advocating for stricter pandemic measures and making masks mandatory. He says that these salt-masks could solve the shortage of appropriate masks faced by the healthcare system.
Rubino’s brilliant work has also been recognized by Mitacs, with the Mitacs Award for Outstanding Innovation–International. Her research was also in collaboration with international researchers like Dr. Sang-Moo Kang. She worked in her virology lab at Georgia State University in Atlanta on the salt coating. After receiving the award, she said that she was very grateful to Mitacs for acknowledging her talent, and she was also proud of being a researcher and an engineer. She stated that she would continuously work toward developing new technologies to better the health industry and society.
She urges young women hoping to follow a similar path to make sure that it is in line with their values and curiosity. She is confident that seeking out mentors or peer programs that support and encourage your dream is vital to help guide you in your professional development.