In March, Manu Prakash, a bioengineer from Stanford University, flew to his California home from France and spent 14 days in personal quarantine.
After he was isolated in the room where he stores all his scuba and snorkeling equipment, the bioengineer came up with the idea of dealing with two of the most pressing challenges of the pandemic.
First, he found out that the worldwide supply chain then, for disposable N95 masks had broken down, and a lot of hospitals already lacked sufficient personal protective equipment or PPE.
Second, Prakash shared, the "masks that are out there, that we put in the hands of our frontline workers," are not that good.
Oftentimes, the said PPEs don't seem to fit well, and they are uncomfortable when worn. And if they don't fit, he explained, the masks don't protect.
The idea of Prakash addressed both challenges. According to reports on his invention, the bioengineer wanted to have full-face snorkel masks repurposed, "outfit them with 3D-printed filter-holders," and use them as a way to address the growing need for PPEs anywhere in the world.
This very idea was conveyed through a tweet, which led to an international alliance, leading to design and testing in the laboratory of Prakash and elsewhere. This then resulted in tens of thousands of snorkel masks being transported and used all over the world.
Prakash's snorkel mask functions as a two-in-one device, as it is designed as a combination of a face mask and face shield.
Design, testing, and distribution of the device called "pneumask" was described by Laurel Kroo, a mechanical engineer working in Prakash's lab, during the 73rd Annual Meeting of the American Physical Society's Division of Fluid Dynamics.
The Pneumask Consortium comprises universities and firms from different countries of the world. Scientists in the coalition have published procedures on disinfecting masks to make it suitable for reuse.
Clinical trials propose that the snorkel mask can be worn comfortably for the whole eight-hour shift duration. Prakash explained, "from a fluid dynamics perspective, a mask is a hydrodynamic device."
He continued, many things happen when one breathes in and out. Therefore, he continued, there might be a need to have the right kind of filters. One has to think about rebreathing and comfort, too, he elaborated.
Prakash's lab has revolved to focus on a lot of projects related to COVID-19. Specifically, it helped launch the 1000x1000 project, which repurposed cotton candy-making machines to produce protective N95 mask material.
To make cotton candies, the said machine functions by melting and spinning out liquid sugars to become fine threads. To make filter material, the same but now-repurposed machines "spin out nanofibers that can trap minuscule particles.
Together with their partners at other universities and firms, Prakash's group helped develop what they call the "Pufferfish," an open-source inexpensive ICU ventilator.
Animals' Nasal Cavities
Cornwell University's Sunghwan Jung, who investigates animals through fluid dynamics' lens, has been collaborating with researchers, including Brookings-based South Dakota State University's Saikat Basu, and University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign's Leonardo Chamorro, on masks that get their form from animals' nasal cavities. The work was financially backed by a grant from the National Science Foundation.
Animals such as pigs, dogs, and opossums are famous for their ultra-sensitive sniffers. Jung explained and added, "They have very complicated nasal structure," they try to copy that structure in their filters.
Jung also pointed out that the nose of humans is fairly "straightforward and vacuous." However, pigs and dogs are different as they have "twisty and tortuous nasal cavity," the reason they have quite a strong sense of smell.
Fluid mechanics indicates that if one has such a tortuous air pathway, there is a need for more changes to "capture more particles," Jung emphasized.