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Infectious Diseases

Updated 17 June 2020

Swiss researchers have created a transparent, breathable surgical mask

This could be the face of future surgical masks after researchers created a biomass-based material from polymer.

  • A Swiss research centre developed a new material that can be make into transparent, breathable masks for healthcare professionals
  • The idea was to make it easier for health workers to communicate with their patients
  • They have already raised around R17.6 million to start the manufacturing process 

Breathable and transparent – this could be the face of future surgical masks thanks to Swiss researchers from science and technology university EPFL.

Dreamed up by the EssentialTech Centre of the university, they created a disposable surgical mask where patients can see the whole face of healthcare professionals while being treated.

Called HelloMasks, they also founded the startup HMCare to market it. There has been a boom in mask production around the world, and this surge in demand helped them to easily raise around R17.6 million to start the manufacturing process. 

READ: Masks and Covid-19: How, when and why – the latest guidelines

transparent mask

Their timing couldn’t be better. They started working on the mask two years ago – before the start of the pandemic – because they saw a need for medical practitioners to better communicate with their patients while keeping their masks on. This is especially useful for children, patients that have hearing issues, and the elderly – all who depend on visual cues for communication.

A smile from a healthcare worker also goes a long way to comfort patients. 

This was the general spirit behind the idea for the masks. Klaus Schönenberger, head of the centre, worked during the Ebola outbreak in West Africa in 2015, and saw nurses pinning photos of themselves to their chests so that patients could tell what they looked like under all the protective gear. 

He got together with Thierry Pelet, now the CEO of the start-up, and Sacha Sidjanski, a project manager at EPFL’s School of Life Sciences, who were both inspired by a storyteller at a hospital who was saddened that ill children couldn’t see her facial expression while she was entertaining them. 

READ: Running with a mask – what you should know, and how to choose the right one

“Looking online, you can find prototypes of masks that are partly transparent, but they’re just normal masks with some of the fabric replaced by clear plastic,” says Pelet. These masks also fog up because the plastic isn’t breathable. 

The transparent membrane material made from polymer is biomass-based, eco-friendly, and better yet, breathable. 

[Photo of mask material]Sample of the mask’s material. (Photo: EPFL)

While designed originally for healthcare professionals – to whom it will be sold first – with the pandemic they may start marketing it to the public at large. This would be especially useful for the deaf community during the pandemic. 

They are hoping to launch in 2021

Image credit: Photo courtesy EPFL