Queensland researchers have come up with a new material that filters out microscopic particles and germs — much better than commercially available surgical masks. Queensland University of Technology research engineer Dr Thomas Rainey explains…
How did you come up with this material?
In 2014, we set out to make a better filter to block out diesel engine emissions that cause cancer. We eventually succeeded, once we took a different approach to other available products.
In 2017, we realised that the emissions we were removing were roughly the same size as viruses, and so we began to apply our material to respirators and surgical masks.
What is it composed of? How do you source it?
It is made of cellulose — one of the main elements of plant cells — so it is easy to get hold of and we can use plant waste, such as sugarcane bagasse. The material has some similarities to toilet paper.
What are you making with this fibre?
We are making a range of things from face masks to diesel engine exhaust filters. We are keen to look at other uses, such as air-conditioning filters for eco-energy buildings and firefighting gear.
What is special about your material and makes it better than other material in use?
We’ve developed a material that is breathable, biodegradable, easy to produce, and can filter out particles smaller than 100 nanometres.
People make filters from all kinds of materials, including paper. The challenge is getting them to filter something as tiny as a virus while still allowing you to breathe through it.
We’ve found a way to make it really breathable yet filter out the small, bad stuff, such as diesel engine emissions, bacteria and viruses. This is important for anyone with respiratory problems and it means people who have to wear masks for long periods won’t get as fatigued.
Also, we’re pretty excited that we could make it totally biodegradable at the same time!
Is it reusable? … Safe? How quickly does it breakdown?
Our material is hypoallergenic, and its degradability is similar to toilet paper.
We’ve been aiming this at a health market, so reusability has not been a focus. We are looking at it as a disposable product. That’s why the biodegradability of cellulose is really important.
Who is supporting this work?
Queensland University of Technology (QUT) has really backed this research for the past couple of years, while industry is still catching up. This is mostly because filters aren’t traditionally made in Australia and the nation’s PPE (personal protective equipment) supplies were okay.
Now that COVID-19 has highlighted some supply chain issues, the industry seems more responsive to domestic manufacturing and adopting innovation. We’re optimistic this could be a great outcome for our research and for Queensland.
What is next for this research project?
We’ve put a lot of research into this unique material, tested it thoroughly, and demonstrated its effectiveness. We want to make the jump from lab to full scale as quickly as we can and go commercial. We really want to make this in Australia, and ideally in Queensland.
Where are you based?
We’re at the Gardens Point campus of QUT in Brisbane, and that’s where the research has been happening. All the testing was performed at the QUT Biofuel Engine Research Facility and the International Laboratory for Air Quality and Health.
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