Will heated face masks kill coronavirus? Researchers testing prototype, university says

MIT researchers are testing prototypes for heated face masks, per a university release

Prototype testing is underway for a reusable face mask that would blast coronavirus particles with heat, per a university news release.

Researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) reportedly submitted a patent for a mask with heated copper mesh. The contraption is said to slow particles down and inactivate viruses in mere seconds by the mesh and temperatures reaching 90°C, or 194°F.

"While facial coverings over the nose and mouth reduce the spread of the virus SARS-CoV-2 by filtration, masks capable of viral inactivation by heating could provide a complementary method to limit viral transmission," study authors wrote.

Findings were posted ahead of peer review on the arXiv depository.

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Prototype testing is underway for a reusable face mask that would blast virus particles with heat. 

Prototype testing is underway for a reusable face mask that would blast virus particles with heat.  (Courtesy of MIT researchers)

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The searing heat reportedly “could achieve between a thousandfold and millionfold reduction in viral particles, depending on the final mask size,” per the release. The prototypes use a 9-volt battery to release an electric current across a 0.1-millimeter thick copper mesh.

The result? Medically sterile air on both sides of the mask, researchers say.

According to the research team, the virus degrades much more quickly with every 10-degree increase in temperature. Even at 100°F, researchers report that coronavirus inactivation takes close to an hour (with a time constant of 48.8 minutes), while it takes only seconds at the higher temperatures researchers considered in designing the heated mask.

“Of course, we need to be mindful of the safety and comfort of mask users,” Samuel Faucher, lead author and graduate student at MIT, said in the release. “The air will be cooled after viral inactivation to make the mask comfortable and safe to use.”

Temperatures over 140°F can seriously burn the skin in a matter of seconds, experts say. The researchers told Fox News the mask incorporates thermally insulating materials, like neoprene, for users’ comfort and safety. 

Intended users include health care workers but also members of the public in certain circumstances where social distancing would be difficult, like aboard a packed bus.

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“We formulated and solved mathematical equations that govern breathing and air heating to propose mask designs that may thermally inactivate the coronavirus. We plan to build and test additional physical prototypes before we make any specific recommendations about their use,” researchers wrote in an emailed statement. 

The estimated mass of the mask is 600 g, or 21.1 oz (1.3 lb), including the batteries.

Michael Strano, the paper’s senior author and Carbon P. Dubbs professor of chemical engineering at MIT, said the design wasn’t “too cumbersome,” per the release.

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“The prospect of being able to breathe in medically sterile air and breathe out medically sterile air, protecting the people around you and protecting yourself, is just the next step. It’s better technology,” Strano continued.

Nevertheless, guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends opting for masks with two or more layers of washable, breathable fabric that fully cover the nose and mouth, with a snug fit around the face.

The health agency does not recommend neck gaiters, face shields or masks with vents or valves. Children younger than 2 should not wear masks due to the potential for difficulty breathing and inability to communicate.

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