Post Pandemic, the Hidden Long-Term Environmental Risk of Face Masks Tackled Head On By Taiwan Tech
Face masks have become an integral part of human daily life as the coronavirus type 19 (COVID-19) pandemic has forever changed our lives in the past 3 years (and beyond). This proof can be seen from the significantly increased trend in the number of face mask demand, from 2.4 billion units in the end of 2020 to 3.3 billion units in the 2023 prediction, based on the compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 22.9%.
Taipei, Taiwan (PRUnderground) April 27th, 2022
Face masks have become an integral part of human daily life as the coronavirus type 19 (COVID-19) pandemic has forever changed our lives in the past 3 years (and beyond). This proof can be seen from the significantly increased trend in the number of face mask demand, from 2.4 billion units in the end of 2020 to 3.3 billion units in the 2023 prediction, based on the compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 22.9%. Moreover, the dramatic increase of face mask use poses a real environmental threat now as well as for future generations. All single use face masks in the market are made from polypropylene (PP), which requires 20 to 30 years to be decomposed naturally since many ultimately end up in landfills around the world. The prediction has shown that the face mask demand will not drop as soon as the pandemic is over, but it will stabilize for a long time as most people have been educated to wear masks in their daily life. Therefore, there is an urgent need to find an alternative biodegradable, yet cheap as PP, so it can become a viable product, which can be mass-produced globally.
In this particular problem, National Taiwan University of Science and Technology (NTUST) or Taiwan Tech is one of leading universities in the polymer field attempting to provide a solution by researching sugar-based polymer as a sustainable and biodegradable medical mask for recent abundant mask demand. NTUST has a long-standing history of polymer research for semiconductor purposes such as sugar-based organic field effect transistors (OFET). This OFET has become a tremendous game-changer as it allows semiconductor industries to use organic and viable materials from biomass. This time, NTUST is using its expertise in sugar-based polymer by studying in-situ electrostatic charge on the mask fibers to produce a formidable antibacterial activity. Charged fibers will attract microorganism and other particulates, so the filtration efficiency can be increased greatly. In addition, there are many precedent researches in NTUST regarding sugar-based polymers, which have considerable static charges for further investigation.
Professor Yu-Cheng Chiu from the Department of Chemical Engineering NTUST has initiated this research since last year and currently, Dextrin (Biopolymer from potato) has shown an acceptable result for its antibacterial and static charge. Previously, Prof. Chiu had used many sugar-based polymers to become organic semiconductor materials. “There are many sugar-based polymers in nature, which we can utilize to become a biodegradable face mask. However, we need to ensure that those materials are able to produce fibers with water as the solvent and can be reacted with silane, yet still maintain their static charges, and also have hydrophobic abilities. Therefore, the cost of production can be acceptable for the public,” said Prof. Chiu.
Jia-Hua Ye as the project officer, who is also a graduate student in Prof. Chiu’s research group, has mentioned the possibility of other polymers such as Pullulan (Biopolymer from mushroom), k-Carrageenan (Biopolymer from seaweed), and Hypromellose (Biopolymer from biomass wastes) may produce same prospects as Dextrin. “Although NTUST has all sophisticated equipment to test the materials, the most challenging part is to make sure the polymer material does not break after the electrospinning process for producing fibers and does not lose their electrostatic ability. Moreover, we try to use new sugar-based polymer sources that do not come from feedstock, so it will not compete with the main food supply,” according to Jia-Hua.
In a nutshell, NTUST has offered a versatile medical mask material with an acceptable antibacterial activity, yet also biodegradable and easy to be mass-produced. This research is expected to be finished and registered for patent at the end of 2022. Hopefully, this invention can cope with abundant demand for masks and reduce the environmental burdens from masks waste.
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