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UBC researchers use BC wood fibre to design biodegradable, N95-style mask


May 21, 2020
By P&PC Staff

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The Can-Mask. Photo: UBC

Researchers at the Bioproducts Institute at the University of British Columbia have used wood fibre to design what they say could be the first N95 mask that can be sourced and produced entirely in Canada.

The “Canadian-Mask” – or Can-Mask – is also fully compostable and biodegradable.

“If COVID-19 has taught us anything, it’s how important it is to have a robust supply of protective equipment like N95 respirators and surgical masks,” says chemical and biological engineering professor Orlando Rojas, who is also scientific director of the Bioproducts Institute and a faculty member with UBC’s faculty of forestry, faculty of applied science and faculty of science.

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The mask frame is made entirely from B.C. wood fibres from sources such as pine, spruce, cedar and other softwoods.

One prototype uses a commercial N95 filter on the front of the mask, and the other uses a filter specially designed by the UBC team from wood-based products.

Both prototypes are currently being tested to ensure they meet health industry specifications for fit and permeability, with plans to apply for Health Canada certification in the near future.

Cost-effective scaling and production are in the works.

“With escalating tensions during a pandemic, international supply lines for medical masks can break down, creating local shortages,” says researcher Johan Foster, a chemical and biological engineering associate professor in the faculty of applied science and the NSERC Canfor Industrial Research Chair in Advanced Bioproducts at UBC.

“When we decided to design a mask back in March, we knew early on we wanted a solution that uses local materials, is easy to produce and inexpensive, with the added bonus of being compostable and biodegradable.”

Developing the mask took the combined efforts of a multidisciplinary team that included researchers from the faculties of applied science, forestry and science at UBC.

The researchers believe the mask is a good alternative to the synthetic masks currently in use.

“With millions of disposable masks and gloves already polluting city sidewalks and potentially entering our rivers and oceans, we urgently need a biodegradable option to avoid making a massive impact on our environment,” says Foster.