As the second wave of COVID-19 rages on in Canada, a researcher at the University of Alberta is being recognized by Mitacs for her breakthrough work in developing a salt-coated mask that can kill viruses and bacteria within five minutes of surface contact.
Ilaria Rubino, originally from Italy, has been working with biomedical engineer and assistant professor Hyo-Jick Choi on this first-of-its-kind coating that can be used on surgical masks and respirators. The salt dissolves the pathogen-carrying droplets and as the liquid evaporates, salt crystals with sharper edges grow back and damage the virus or bacteria.
“Usually, the masks are recommended for a single use and we need to be careful when we handle them, we’re not supposed to touch the front,” Rubino explained to Yahoo Canada. “We wanted to develop a technology that would be able to neutralize the pathogens.”
“We have demonstrated inactivation of the airborne viruses and bacteria, and we have also shown that the salt-coated masks are very breathable.”
Although mask use has been associated with COVID-19 for the general population, it can also more effectively stop the spread of other viruses like the flu and strep throat, in addition to the coronavirus.
“Our goal, in general, is to develop technologies that can help [with] issues related to global health,” Rubino said. “We found out that there was this gap in the technology of the mask where the pathogens can survive.”
“We wanted to address this to make the masks as effective as possible.”
The researcher identified that one of the challenges when developing this technology is that people tend to touch their face very frequently, so the speed at which the pathogens could become inactive was an important parameter.
According to Rubino, the researchers believe this mask could be in the market by the end of 2021.
On Tuesday, Rubino is receiving the Mitacs Award for Outstanding Innovation — International, for her achievement in research and development innovation with international collaboration. She also worked with Dr. Sang-Moo Kang’s virology lab at Georgia State University in Atlanta on the salt coating.
“I feel very grateful for Mitacs for recognizing my research and also the fact that, being a researcher and an engineer, we can develop technologies that can help with global health, and they can help society,” Rubino said.
For any young women who are hoping to follow a similar career path as Rubino, the Mitacs award winner urges them to “follow the path that is in line with your values and your curiosity.”
“What worked well for me is to seek out mentors or peers programs that were there to support and encourage me throughout and also guide your professional development,” she said.