More than a mask

A man and a woman, both wearing masks, in a health care setting.

If face masks are essential in the fight against COVID-19, masks with superpowers should be even better, right?

That’s what Abdennour Abbas thinks. Abbas is an associate professor in the Department of Bioproducts and Biosystems Engineering at the University of Minnesota and cofounder of the textile startup company Claros Technologies. He and his team at Claros are working to create face masks that are engineered to kill viruses like COVID-19 as soon as they make contact with the material, preventing them from entering a person’s respiratory system.

“We just made a mask that can kill 99.9 percent of viruses within 10 minutes of contact,” Abbas says. “And we think we can do even better than that.”

Abbas leads the research and development team at Claros, which specializes in a process called textile functionalization, or the practice of imbuing fabrics and fibers with special properties, including the ability to kill viruses and bacteria.

Antimicrobial fabrics aren’t a new idea, but Abbas and his team have perfected the concept. The problem with many products on the market today, Abbas says, is that only their outer layer is coated with virus-killing substances. That means as soon as a pair of antimicrobial socks is put in the washer, for example, the special properties go down the drain.

Abbas’ team developed a way to coat both the fabric’s outer and inner layers with antimicrobial abilities. The result is a much more durable product built to last. Researchers at the U of M independently tested Claros’ mask design and confirmed its virus-killing capabilities.

“You can wash these fabrics over 100 times and they still work the same,” Abbas says.

Abbas was working on several other functional textile projects before the pandemic, including fabrics resistant to fire and ultraviolet rays. But as soon as COVID-19 became a worldwide health emergency, the team focused on antiviral applications. He hopes to provide masks and garments made from the virus-killing fabric to frontline health care workers as soon as possible.

“It’s not only about the performance of the mask or material,” he says. “It’s about the safety of the people who wear them.”