Northwestern Team Receives Grant to Develop Virus-Deactivating Mask

Through innovation, hard work and a $200,000 grant from the National Science Foundation, a research team led by chemistry Prof. Omar Farha will work to develop a reusable, virus-deactivating face mask for healthcare workers on the frontlines of the COVID-19 pandemic.

According to a May 21 University release, the team plans to create a chemically modified mask out of antiviral material that will reduce the spread of the virus, protect the mask wearer, and can be used multiple times.

If successful, the innovation will ensure both individual safety and provide a remedy for the critically short supply of face masks.

The group has already created a nanomaterial that “deactivates” toxic nerve agents, including some of the most dangerous chemicals to humans, such as VX and soman (GD). In the release, Farha noted he hopes that with small manipulations, the material can be deployed as an antiviral as well.

“The goal is for the virus to disintegrate once it contacts the mask, while filtered air will pass through the mask safely,” Farha said. “As a result, these face masks have the potential to stop or slow the spread of the highly infectious coronavirus.”

Farha described metal-organic frameworks, the nanomaterial he works with, as “sophisticated bath sponges.” Just as a household sponge traps water in its holes, the material can capture toxic materials in their own programmed, ordered and functional cavities, with the only difference being that the material’s “holes” deactivate toxic chemicals.

Farha said the next step is to incorporate existing antiviral technology into the nanomaterial, utilizing that material to manufacture new masks or modify existing ones. According to the release, the project is one of many at Northwestern sponsored by a Rapid Response Research grant from the NSF.

The RAPID grant calls for immediate proposals that have the potential to address the spread of COVID-19. Several projects at Northwestern have received the grant. This list includes projects like the development of a self-sanitizing face mask, led by McCormick Prof. Jiaxing Huang; a one-step diagnostic tool for infectious diseases, led by McCormick Prof. Julius Lucks and UV-resistant elastic for N95 masks, led by McCormick Prof. Mark Hersam.

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