A Thai-made Reusable Mask to Protect People from Covid-19 and Air Pollution
When the first wave of Covid-19 hit Thailand, in March 2020, like in most countries, personal protection equipment, in particular, facemasks was scarce, putting frontline healthcare workers at risk. Prof. Anongnat Somwangthanaroj, a macro-molecular engineer, was the perfect expert to lead a joint effort, combining university professors and private sector actors to produce a Thailand-made mask to protect health workers. The plastic-silicone-based CUre Air Sure Mask has been delivered to 18,000 doctors, nurses, and dentists in hospitals to date, throughout the country, through a spin-off social enterprise, with production capacity rapidly expanding.
Prof. Somwangthanaroj, the Associate Dean in Research Affairs of the Chulalongkorn University Faculty of engineering, always liked science for its capacity to solve the problems of the world. As a child, she was fascinated by the deductions of Sherlock Holmes, and the scientific resourcefulness of MacGyver, a 1980s series hero. She studied materials science at Chulalongkorn University, and through a scholarship went to earn a master’s degree and a Ph.D. at the University of Michigan, United States, specializing in polymer. Before taking her return journey, she spent a year as a researcher at the College of Pharmacy “because I wanted to expand my knowledge,” she said.
For several years Thailand has been faced with a high level of ultra-fine PM2.5 dust particles, resulting from pollution, in particular in Bangkok and the northern part of the country. Particles are particularly dense between November and February, a time of year when weather conditions are preventing pollutants from dispersing. People use N95 masks, which are filtering out over 95% of those particles.
Those masks could have been used against Covid-19 but unfortunately, not being manufactured in Thailand but imported from China, they were in acute shortage recalled Prof. Somwangthanaroj.
Prof. Somwangthanaroj and her colleagues, in particular professors of civil engineering and pharmacy, started working on medical masks for front-line workers with a passion in July 2020 in the hope that when the seemingly inevitable second wave of Covid-19 swept through Thailand, healthcare workers would be safely equipped. She gathered more colleagues and friends around the project, some coming from private sector companies, such as T.C. Pharmaceutical Industry Co, SCG Packaging, an affiliated company of Saha Phathanapibul Group, and The Plastics Institute of Thailand, who joined in on the effort.
A prototype was created, 3D-printed, and sent to doctors for fitting and feedback. The project, which started as a collective personal effort of a group of researchers and private sector individuals, working on their own time, evolved into a full-time research project as the Chulalongkorn University soon joined in, bringing in funds, and more researchers, she explained.
The counterpart for the funding and support of the project was that the invention is patented and that a spin-off company is created in the form of a social enterprise. Some 70 percent of the net profit would go back to the university, itself a shareholder of the company.
The company, Cure Enterprise, was set up in March, with nine co-founders, all belonging to the research team, she said. The objective was to develop a respirator mask entirely manufactured in Thailand, so the country would no longer depend on imports.
An effictive, Affordable, breathable and comfortable face mask
The N95 mask used as a shield against pollution is made of hard cellulose and its wearers have to push it hard against their skin to avoid leaks.
In contrast, the CUre Air Sure Mask is a reusable facemask made of silicone, which adheres to the skin, with a softer touch. Every aspect of the mask was carefully considered. “We had to think of how much space inside the mask was needed so that people can be heard properly when speaking,” explained Prof. Somwangthanaroj.
Furthermore, all parts are modifiable to accommodate further improvements, and the fitting of the mask, which comes in one size, fits most people in Thailand, she said. Some limitations could result from the fact that the mask is made for regularly shaped faces, with a thin and flat-shaped nose with a short tip, and not adapted to securely fit people with a thin face and a nose with a sloping curve, which would be about 5 percent of the Thai population, she noted.
The filter in the mask is of the same concept as the N95 masks, using a polypropylene melt-blown non-woven fabric, but allows people to breathe more easily. The mask needs to be washed and dried every day, has an expected life span of at least a year, and the filter can be used up to seven days.
Unlike single-use medical masks, the use of the CUre Sure Air mask greatly reduces the amount of infectious waste to be disposed of in medical settings and will lead to reduced waste in general when available for all.
In addition to the 18,000 masks provided to health workers, some 6,000 masks have been sold to the public via selected pharmacies and online platforms. People buy masks to protect themselves against the Omicron variant of Covid-19 and the PM2.5 air pollution.
Three different factories are manufacturing the parts of the mask, all located around Bangkok.
CUre Air Sure Masks can be used for any kind of viruses and air pollution but its filtration system does not protect against corrosive chemicals. Cure Enterprise is working on the next generation of masks, she said, which will also be appropriate for industrial use. The hope is that those masks can reach market in the next year or two.
An Improved Cure Enterprise Face Mask Model soon on the Market
The second model of the masks called CUre AIR KLEAR, is a clear face mask. It is currently being developed, and the 3D prototype will very soon be tested for efficiency and reliability. “Our test laboratory has received most of the equipment, and will be functioning this month [May],” said Prof. Somwangthanaroj, adding “This will further improve the speed of filtration developments as well as quality assurance.”
The part covering the mouth will be transparent, allowing women to display their usual make-up, and more importantly will be a major improvement for deaf people and elderly patients with hearing loss relying on lips’ movement to understand people.
A petty patent application was submitted to the IP office in May 2021 and is pending. Improvements for the masks will lead to more petty patents being registered, Prof. Somwangthanaroj said. The mask’s design is not protected but the design of the new clear model will be, she added.
The company is also looking at export markets, but not before “we can help Thai people get protection.” She explained that Cure Enterprise needs a strategic partner to export the masks, which is foreseen in the next two to three years.