Early this month Q&J Face Masks, out of Centennial Colorado, received positive results on their masks after having them tested with the University of Colorado Boulder’s Vance Lab. Tests indicated a filtering efficiency between 45% to 58% in the three test categories.
CU Boulder’s Vance Lab continues to steadily test masks with a testing queue that’s full until September 30th.
“I thought it was a good thing to do, and it captured my imagination,” said Jon Lowry, of Q&J face masks. He created this business in response to the demand for reliable face masks since the onset of the coronavirus.
But, not all masks are made equal according to Lowry.
“There are thousands of people selling masks, there are probably tens of thousands making their own, but one of the things that differentiate us is I had it tested,” he said.
Lowry has worked primarily in telecommunications, founding the consulting service JP Lowry in 2000. Mask making is a new market for him, but he is utilizing skills he’s developed for years working across the world in Silicon Valley, Hong Kong, Singapore, and the Denver Metro Area.
“I’m a product manager so I envision, create, develop, deploy, enhance products, so I kinda know what I need to do in terms of research,” Lowry said, which for him meant getting his masks tested.
With the growing demand for N95 masks, the need for testing of alternative masks has accelerated.
“People started turning to alternative means for personal protection instead of the usual tried-and-true well-known N95 masks,” said Marina Vance, Vance Lab head. “There were also not only people trying to use masks that were non-standard but also so many people that were not in this market decided that they were gonna start producing them.”
Vance is an assistant professor in the Department of Mechanical Engineering and Environmental Engineering Program at CU. Vance Lab focuses on aerosols, doing experimental research with particulate matter.
Demand for testing has been tireless; the state of Colorado commissioned John Volken’s lab out of Colorado State University to set up a standardized testing facility for the state.
“At the time I thought maybe I’d just refer everyone to Volken’s lab,” said Vance.
But, the need for testing was high.
“All of these people that were making masks that weren’t certain if their masks were gonna meet the standards or not, they need testing more quickly than that lab was able to provide at the time so I realized there was still a need for somebody to help these people,” Vance said.
Right now individuals at the lab, including undergraduate student Hannah Teed, are working on the “masks project” to test alternative personal protective equipment (PPE). Lab work can be a really immersive experience for students.
“I get to see what other graduate students are working on,” said Teed, a junior studying environmental engineering. “I’m getting exposed to all sorts of different forms of engineering.”
Vance noted that their testing is not the standardized test that is performed by NIOSH (National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health) but, “it’s a method that we trust,” Vance assured.
“The testing itself for a single mask is a six-hour-long test,” Teed said.
Research has been key to the development of Q&J Face Mask. “I used science to develop the design, and then I wanted to use science to validate the design,” Lowry explained.
Q&J masks are made of layered fabrics and use the combined techniques of mechanical and electrostatic filtering. The innermost layer is a silk that is both comfortable against the skin and has electrostatic properties.
Most cotton masks make use of only mechanical filtering, where fabric physically blocks the passage of airborne contaminants. N95 masks and surgical masks, on the other hand, use electrostatic properties to attract particles.
“[With] electrostatic filtering, the aerosols, the virus, is electrically attracted to the fabric,” said Lowry.
Dr. Vance further explained electrostatic charge, “so if you take a balloon and you rub it against your clothes it’s gonna get staticy, sticky, it’s gonna stick to fabric, that’s exactly what some of these mask materials can do,” said Vance.
Most electrostatically charged masks like N95’s and surgical masks are disposable. “Then the challenge is, how do (you) electrostatically recharge a mask?” said Lowry.
Q&J masks found a way with the use of silk. “What I do and my wife…we just rub it across our pant leg,” said Lowry. Users can also fold the mask in half and rub the silk fabric against itself to recharge it. According to a press release from Lowry, the mask was found to be 2.6 times more effective at filtering once charged.
“In some ways that’s the secret sauce, you got mechanical, you got electrostatic and it also has a pocket where you can put another filter,” said Lowry.
COVID guidelines have been changing throughout the pandemic as research continues.
“In the beginning of the pandemic there were very important entities like the CDC and the WHO saying that the aerosol route was not an important route of transmission for COVID that the most important one was both fomites, which is inanimate objects that we touch that can become contaminated, and also large droplets,” said Vance.
Dr. Vance spoke to misalignments between aerosol researchers and the medical community.
“The classical knowledge of droplets versus aerosols in the medical field, the medical community, is fundamentally wrong,” said Vance. “So the understanding was that in the epidemiology or the medical world is that if a particle is larger than 5 microns it’s gonna drop to the ground pretty quickly after six feet and that’s fundamentally wrong, that’s not the case, a particle that’s 5 micrometers in size will linger around for tens of minutes before reaching the floor and it can be easily resuspended as we move around.”
The filtering efficiency of masks has become ever important as scientists learn more about the possible airborne transmission of COVID. The World Health Organization has expanded COVID information to include these possibilities.
The use of masks in tandem with social distancing and generally reducing public encounters is vital to stopping the spread. No mask is one hundred percent effective, even N95 which earned their name due to 95% efficiency.
“We recommend what’s called universal mask-wearing so you shouldn’t be wearing a mask just to protect yourself you should be wearing a mask also to protect others,” said Vance. “If everybody’s wearing a mask, even if the efficiency of that mask is low for your own protection the efficiency might be higher for protecting the particles from being emitted in the first place.”
Contact CU Independent Staff Writer Mairead Brogan at firstname.lastname@example.org.