Tackling COVID-19 is a mammoth effort. And we're hard at work. We’re looking at SARS-CoV-2's genome, creating proteins for The University of Queensland’s vaccine candidate and testing the efficacy of the two vaccine candidates outlined by the Coalition for Epidemic Preparedness Innovations (CEPI). But we're also hard at work helping you in your daily life.
More face masks are being worn more often by health care workers. They're constantly in close contact with sick people and those exposed to or with COVID-19. This means that demand has outweighed supply.
Dr Jurg Schutz is part of the team helping Australian businesses manufacture face masks. He gives us the low down on how this research can improve our current face mask situation and the face masks themselves.
What do you research at CSIRO normally?
Most of my work is concerned with fluid barriers. They’re flat sheets that prevent certain ‘fluid’ materials from passing while letting others through. Think of something like your fly screen. The teams I work with have expertise in the manufacture, characterisation and optimisation of these flat sheets for various respiratory protective devices and products. I am also involved in combining various technologies to create new and better solutions to already existing filter products.
How has your research shifted to fight COVID-19?
Some of my past projects dealt with the prospect of what to do in potential emergency scenarios. These include bushfires, water shortages and even epidemics. We’re now working on effectively implementing some of these ideas for the current pandemic, specifically around developing filter material for face masks.
What gap did you find that you wanted to fix?
Australia currently has no industry that manufactures flat sheet filter material for face masks. This is where we come in.
How are we helping Australian industry make our own face masks?
Our role is to fill gaps in the Australian supply chain for filter material and filter products used in respiratory protective devices. We focus on manufacturing high-end flat sheet filter material in larger quantities. We also test the performance of these components and products.
How does the CSIRO-developed material filter out particles compared to other face masks?
Both filter materials collect aerosol particles on the fibre’s surfaces, which make up the filter medium. Filtering particles involves a combination of mechanical and electrostatic filtration principles. ‘Mechanical’ filtration is the type of straining that a fly screen does to prevent flies from coming into the house.
The difference is our filter medium has a stronger reliance on electrostatic filtration. This means the material produces a static effect that 'swallows' harmful particles. Normal face masks rely more on mechanical filtration.
What is electrostatic action and why did you focus on it?
The electrostatic fields inside the filter medium have a dramatic effect on increasing its ability to filter. All with next to no increase in breathing resistance.
The electrostatic fields are generated by positive and negative charges stored inside the filter medium. But the electrostatic fields only exist inside the medium. On the outside, the medium feels totally uncharged because it contains the same number of positive and negative charges. These cancel each other out.
What happens to the material next?
The material will be used by face mask manufacturers and will form the inner filtration layer of a face mask.
We don’t design or manufacture face masks at CSIRO. This task falls on companies equipped with mask manufacturing capability. They’ll use either sewing machines or ultrasonic welding to join individual pieces.
How will face masks made from CSIRO’s special material help us in the current pandemic?
The global demand for face masks is increasing. International supply chains are struggling to meet that demand and locally-made products can supplement this market where needed. Aussie science is helping by making highly efficient filter material for local mask manufacturers to overcome these limitations.
Our science is making effective filters that not only capture particles of all sizes but are easy to breathe through. This is great because of how small the virus is.
Plus, the addition of antimicrobial technology into our filters is also possible. It could potentially be implemented down the track, but this would require further development. We’re also not sure it would protect against COVID-19.
Did you always want to be a scientist?
I did not know the concept of a ‘scientist’ as a young child. But Jules Verne's stories and Karel Zeman's movies fascinated me. My first cinema movie was “20,000 Leagues Under the Sea”.
What’s your advice to people who are considering a career in STEM?
STEM provides an opportunity to look into subjects you’ve always had an interest in, but never have had time to do. I personally find this highly rewarding.