BYU students engineer new mask filter made from everyday materials

Austin Kerr and Ethan Fullwood, two undergraduate electrical engineering students, examine a mixture they made in the lab. They will put the solution through an electrospinning process to create a membrane layer that is applied to a mask and improves filtration. (Jaren Wilkey/BYU Photo)

BYU engineering students worked on a project this summer where they created masks made from materials found anywhere in the world to help developing countries have access to better protective filtration systems.

Starting in June, undergraduate students Austin Kerr, Ethan Fullwood and Katie Valera worked with engineers from Avant Design in an internship-like setting to test and design an electrospinning process that creates a filter to layer onto masks.

Electrospinning is a method of producing fibers by adding an electric charge to a solution made of a polymer and a solvent. The solution is held in a syringe needle and the accumulating electric charge forces the solution to be pulled towards a collector. This causes the solvent to evaporate, leaving behind threads of polymer that are sprayed onto the collector in a random manner that can be used as a membrane.

Threads of fiber spray in circular motions as the electrospinning process causes the solution to be pulled to the ground, evaporate the liquid and leave the new fiber chains behind. These fibers act as a membrane that can be put on masks to create a filter. (Jaren Wilkey/BYU Photo)

The Avant Design engineers guided the students through the process, helping brainstorm ideas and aiding in adjustments for things that went wrong or didn’t achieve desired outcomes. Their main goal was to create a good filter to apply to masks.

Once the team started to succeed in creating a filter that worked, they challenged themselves to adjust the design to be made from commonplace materials.

“The novelty is (the students) came up with a process that can be done in some village anywhere in the world using equipment anyone could have. We opened it up so anyone can make these respirators that protect their lives,” said David Fullwood, one of the project’s overseeing professors.

The team discovered the electric currents needed for the process could be pulled from old CRT TVs, which are prevalent almost everywhere in the world. After trying many different mixtures of common household chemicals and plastics, the students settled on a solution made from cigarette filters, acetone and vinegar.

Kerr, an electrical engineering senior, reminisced on the difficulty of finding solutions that worked. “I’d give them a solution that took three hours to mix and then in 20 seconds be told it doesn’t spin, it didn’t work at all and I’ve got to go back to the drawing board.”

According to Ethan Fullwood, an electrical engineering freshman, sometimes the spinning of the solution resulted in pretty designs that lay nicely on the collector. Other times the spinning would spray everywhere, covering the lab in spiderweb-like fibers.

Once they found the perfect combination of polymer and solvent, “it was like magic,” he said.

Ethan Fullwood examining the fiber membrane produced through electrospinning. This membrane can be layered on to a mask to improve air filtration. (Jaren Wilkey/BYU Photo)

“Before I did this project, I had never heard of electrospinning. The different experiences of it were so dynamic,” Ethan Fullwood said.

A senior capstone team of electrical, manufacturing and mechanical engineering undergraduate students took over the project for this academic year to refine the design and initiate distribution.

These students have the unique opportunity to collaborate with students from the Indian Institute of Technology Bombay in Mumbai, India. This across-the-globe connection allows for real-time implementation of the electrospinning process to test how applicable and effective the design is in a different country with limited resources and equipment.

With a focus on global engineering, the capstone team hopes to use this project to help as many people as possible in as many ways as possible.

“Our work won’t just impact people here in the United States with COVID, but it’s going to help everybody around the world with air pollution,” said capstone member Juston Goldade.

According to professor David Fullwood, pollution is one of the biggest causes of death in major industrialized cities. He said he hopes that with this project they could create masks that filter out bad particles to not only help slow the spread of COVID but also improve breathing conditions for residents of highly polluted cities.

Capstone coach Jacob Morrise said throughout this coming year the team will tackle new challenges of mask typology, breathability, reusability, safety of operating the machine and the cost-effectiveness of the process. The students will also work with the India team to ensure the new masks are culturally acceptable and impactful.

When finished, the capstone team is hoping to distribute the design all over the world through the help of BYU’s connections in other countries. Although the students said they don’t know how big of an impact they will have, they are excited to try their best to help those near and far stay healthy through the use of these filtration masks. They said this endeavor helps them follow BYU’s motto to “go forth and serve.”

“Even if we just saved one person’s life or improved one person’s ability to breathe, this whole project would be worth it for me,” Morrise said.

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