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State-of-the-art plasma technologies are being combined with printed electronics to enable the safe reuse of single-use personal protective equipment (PPE) as researchers from the University of Southampton attempt to tackle shortages and the mountain of excess waste generated throughout the coronavirus pandemic.
A 2020 survey suggested that 129 billion single-use face masks are being used worldwide per month, with more than 53 million sent to landfill every day in the UK. At a time when we are trying to reduce the amount of waste sent to landfill, this is a huge environmental concern.
The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates there has been a 40% increase in the amount of PPE requested since the virus first emerged in 2019. The massive volumes required have led to worldwide shortages, placing healthcare workers and those most at risk in danger of being exposed to the virus.
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The Southampton research program, led by Dr Min Kwan Kim from the Department of Aeronautical and Astronautical Engineering, aims to tackle the growing problem of plastic waste generated by PPE and prevent shortages of protective equipment.
The researchers are developing a rapid decontamination system that would safely allow people to re-wear single-use face masks. Known as a plasma brush, the ground-breaking dry decontamination method can be used to treat face masks and respirators that might have been in contact with coronavirus.
“Although many masks are made for single-use, they can be reused for a limited time if there is no risk of contamination from infectious particles on the surface,” explains Kim. “Developing a safe decontamination method, therefore, can reduce acute shortages of masks and their environmental and economic burdens.”
Previous research has demonstrated non-thermal plasma’s ability to inactivate 99.9% of various viruses. However, it has not been widely used for viral decontamination because it is difficult to generate uniformly over large surface areas. Furthermore, it needs a non-ambient carrier gas such as argon or helium.
Researchers overcame these problems using a new plasma creation scheme with the help of printed electronics to create the non-thermal plasma. They will implement a microwave scattering method to measure the energy intensity of plasmas, and transmission electron microscopy to detect alterations in the virus.
This promising approach will use the viricidal capability of non-thermal plasmas to decontaminate masks without using biocidal chemicals with residual chemical residues."
Dr Min Kwan Kim from the Department of Aeronautical and Astronautical Engineering, the University of Southampton
Kim adds: “It will ensure the safe reuse of masks while maintaining structural and functional integrity.”
The system design and protocols for face mask and respirator treatment will be made open-source, meaning other scientific teams can rapidly recreate the plasma brush decontamination system for free. This represents a real opportunity to safeguard against the global PPE shortage and reduce the large volumes of plastic waste pollution being generated by disposable masks.
The team hopes to create a decontamination pouch or plasma bag using thin-layer dielectric barrier discharge (DBD) plasma. The masks can be sealed inside and the virus deactivated.
Feedback on the technology is optimistic, not only for the fight against coronavirus and ensuring a sustained supply of PPE, but also for the future of single-use items in healthcare, which will eventually end up in landfill.
“They say innovation in science is often driven by crisis, and that is shown in very sharp relief here,” says Mark Hall, spokesperson for Divert.co.uk, landfill waste diversion experts. He adds that globally, the response to a crisis of any kind should not undermine the work being done to reduce reliance on landfills, eliminate single-use items, and address environmental pressures.
“While responding to a sudden, urgent shift in need for items like PPE, it’s easy to let our broader goals slip beyond the horizon, but innovations such as this help us create robust, environmentally friendly ways of meeting demand without making environmental sacrifices,” he concludes.
References and Further Reading
University of Southampton, (2020), Scientists invent ‘plasma brush’ to unlock repeat use of disposable face masks, University of Southampton, https://www.southampton.ac.uk/engineering/news/2020/12/18-scientists-invent-plasma-brush.page. Accessed 14 April 2021.
Divert (2021), Self-cleaning re-useable plasma face masks, Divert.co.uk, https://www.divert.co.uk/self-cleaning-re-useable-plasma-face-masks/. Accessed 14 April 2021.