Inventive COVID-19 mask designs come from U.S. universities

By Michael Laff

Innovators on U.S. campuses are fighting COVID-19 by creating masks that detect and protect against the virus that causes it as well as by making breathing through masks and testing easier.

Color-changing coronavirus sensors

Researchers at the University of California, San Diego developed sensors that can be placed on any mask to determine if the wearer has been exposed to the coronavirus. The sensor changes color when the virus is detected in breath or saliva.

As convenient as home pregnancy tests, the sensors give a quick, affordable result that’s easy to read.

“In many ways, masks are the perfect ‘wearable’ sensor for our current world,” said Jesse Jokerst, a professor of nanoengineering at the UC San Diego Jacobs School of Engineering and the project’s lead investigator. “We’re taking what many people are already wearing and repurposing them, so we can quickly and easily identify new infections and protect vulnerable communities.”

Medical mask with plastic test strip and bubble of colored fluid on front (© UCSD)
Researchers at the University of California, San Diego created a color-changing test strip that attaches to a mask and detects SARS-CoV-2, the virus that causes COVID-19, in a user’s breath or saliva. (© UCSD)

The sensor is not intended to replace a COVID-19 test but rather to serve as a warning to seek medical attention if the virus is detected. Jokerst compared it to a smoke alarm.

The U.S. National Institutes of Health provided $1.3 million to the UC San Diego project. The research team will partner with a manufacturer to produce the sensors for individuals in high-risk settings. The sensors will be low-cost to allow for daily testing.

Easier breathing

A student team at Arizona State University designed a mask that protects against the virus while allowing for easier breathing.

The ASU team of undergraduate and graduate students surveyed people reluctant to wear masks. Many said masks were difficult to breathe in, especially during exercise.

Inside of face mask with partitions (© ASU Luminosity Lab)
Arizona State University Luminosity Lab’s FloeMask is designed to promote an anti-fogging and cooling mask experience that could reduce some discomfort when wearing a mask. (© ASU Luminosity Lab)

Since many people breathe mostly through their noses, the team designed a mask with separate chambers for air exhaled from the nose and mouth.

The ASU team’s mask won $500,000 in a competition spearheaded by XPrize, a nonprofit organization that sponsors competitions to solve global challenges.

“It hasn’t been about money or even recognition for this team,” said Nikhil Dave, the ASU team leader. “It’s been about doing what we can to impact our communities and to solve pressing challenges as they arise.”

Tests and more tests

Meanwhile, researchers at the University of Illinois have developed a low-cost saliva test for COVID-19 that provides results in less than 24 hours. Faculty at the University of Arizona developed a test using wastewater while students on the same campus developed an anonymous COVID-19 exposure mobile app to track the spread.

Other innovators across the U.S. also are fighting the spread of COVID-19 using methods ranging from artificial intelligence to llama antibodies.