U-M Uses Cold Plasma to Develop Next Generation Protective Masks

Researchers at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor are developing the next generation of protective masks that will protect users from airborne pathogens.
nonthermal plasma mask diagram
U-M researchers have developed protective masks that use cold plasma to knock airborne pathogens away from the face. // Image courtesy of the University of Michigan

Researchers at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor are developing the next generation of protective masks that will protect users from airborne pathogens.

The new masks, which are designed to replace cloth offerings, incorporate nonthermal, or cold, plasma into a headset that blocks and neutralizes airborne pathogens.

The design features a visor-like device that takes in air from behind the wearer and inactivates all viruses via a miniaturized onboard cold plasma module. The air is then expelled from the visor, downward from the brow area and in front of the mouth and nose.

The downward rushing air serves as an air curtain that knocks down particles near the face before they can be inhaled. The design aims to tackle two major problems with infectious aerosols: their inactivity and the ease with which they’re carried on air currents.

Fire is an example of a thermal plasma. It has been used throughout history for sterilization. Nonthermal, or cold, plasmas are made of highly energetic radicals and ionized molecules that achieve a similar effect without the heat.

Taza Aya, a company co-founded by Herek Clack, an associate professor of civil and environmental engineering at U-M, has been named an awardee in the Invisible Shield QuickFire Challenge, a competition created by Johnson and Johnson Innovation in cooperation with the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority.

The program seeks protections from airborne viruses with minimal impact on daily life.

Clack, who is CEO of Taza Aya, described his company’s concept as protection that aims to have no restrictions to breathing or facial access. The award offered $200,000 in funding from BARDA Industry Day on Oct. 27, when the award was announced.

“We’re looking to move beyond what everyone knows as the current standards for personal respiratory protections: the N95 masks, cloth masks, and neck gaiters we’ve come to rely on in 2020,” Clack says. “These all rely on the conventional method of particle filtration via a largely impermeable medium. We’re looking at an entirely different paradigm here.”

When airborne viruses are exposed to the charged particles, they are rendered harmless in a fraction of a second. Clack and his team previously demonstrated cold plasma’s ability to remove and kill 99.9 percent of airborne viruses in a farm setting as well as in a lab.

The design is not suited for medical personnel since it doesn’t protect against biofluids as surgical masks do.

Taza Aya means “fresh air” or “clean air” in Krygyz, the language spoken in Kyrgyzstan, where co-founder and COO Michael Drake spent time in the Peace Corps. He also serves as executive director of research and interim executive director of advancement for U-M’s College of Engineering.

“We believe there is great value in providing situational access to the face while continuing to reduce the risk associated with aerosols,” Drake says. “Dental and orthodontic activities provide great examples where patient-based physical barrier risk reduction is not practical. Restaurant patrons do not have the ability to wear a mask the entirety of their experience. Our air curtain will enable individuals to enjoy these environments with an added layer of protection.”