BOULDER, COLORADO—In the shipping room of his factory here, Richard Gordon pulls open the drawer of a restaurant-style convection oven to show off a tray filled with his company’s new, freshly sterilized product: multicolored face masks that feature an origami design.
“I thought masks were a total horror,” Gordon says. “They looked awful, felt awful, were hard to breathe in, were hot, and leaked.” So he and Min Xiao, his wife, started a company named Air99 in 2016 to produce something much better.
Now, their mask, named the Airgami, is vying for part of the half-million dollar purse in the final phase of the Mask Innovation Challenge, run by the U.S. Biomedical Advanced Research and Development Authority (BARDA). The contest aims to promote masks that have a better fit, function, and look than existing designs and to nurture the “rather underfunded and a little stagnant” ecosystem of mask development, says Kumiko Lippold, a BARDA pharmacologist and toxicologist who organizes the challenge.
Lippold acknowledges the contest may seem “a little bit behind the curve,” given that the pandemic has abated and many countries have dropped masking requirements. Still, there’s “a significant appetite for mask innovation,” she says. SARS-CoV-2 may have surprises in store that will require people to mask up again—and there will likely be other pandemics. “We’re building tomorrow’s mask,” Lippold says.
The 10 finalists, selected from 1448 entrants, include mom-and-pop innovators like Air99, a team at Georgetown University, and industrial giants Amazon and Levi Strauss & Co. To evaluate the masks, BARDA has teamed up with the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH)—which tests and approves N95 “respirators,” the type that snugly fit the face and have a high filtration efficiency—and the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST). BARDA plans to announce a winner in October.
With billions of people donning face masks for the first time in 2020—and complaining about their shortcomings—the pandemic has triggered a surge in mask research. In a study published in June 2021, for example, NIOSH engineer and aerosol researcher William Lindsley and colleagues compared 19 widely used face coverings by attaching them to a respiratory aerosol simulator, a mannequin headform that breathes and coughs.
All masks help, Lindsley stresses: “The two biggest misconceptions are that they don’t work and that they’re magic and you’re protected, no matter what.” But bandanas are “terrible” at both filtering inhaled air and capturing aerosols when people exhale and cough, the study found. Cloths, neck gaiters, and medical masks are much better, but still pale in comparison to NIOSH-approved N95 masks. (In Europe, the equivalent of N95s are known as FFP2 masks.)
The finalists in the BARDA challenge each offer unique improvements. In Airgami’s case, beauty is important, says Gordon, an electrical and computer engineer—but that’s not why he and Xiao entered the field. Their quest began well before the pandemic, when they moved to Suzhou, China, in 2011 for Xiao’s new job. Pollution there was horrible, and the N95 masks they had brought, made by 3M for construction workers, didn’t fit their young son. “I immediately started cutting out 3M masks and gluing them and stapling them just to shrink them down to fit him,” Gordon says. “Gotta give [the] kid clean air. Very, very simple,” he says.
His son’s problem, coupled with the discomfort and fit issues he had with his own face coverings, led Gordon to devote himself to designing a better mask after the family moved back to the United States in 2015. He stumbled onto an origami show, Above the Fold, that had a “mind-blowing” piece by physicist Robert Lang, a world-renowned origami mathematician and artist. The Airgami is a twist on a popular origami design, the magic ball—also known as the dragon’s egg—sliced in half, which creates a large breathing space and fits tightly on the face. The inner of three polypropylene layers has an electrostatic charge to trap particles—the heart of N95 technology. The mask is reusable, can be rinsed or disinfected with heat, and comes in four different sizes and various colorful prints, including rainbows and camouflage. Lang, who is now on the Air99 board, helped Gordon create a computer program to automate the creasing.
Even so, each mask must be hand-assembled and sells for $29.99. But Gordon says supply can’t meet demand. “The world is flooded with $1.50 masks, and there’s no way we’re going to compete, but they’re all ugly and they don’t necessarily fit great,” says Gordon, who hopes to lower the price with more automation.
Another finalist, Amazon’s PerfectFit Mask, also uses an origami design and comes in various fashion patterns and sizes. A company named 4C Air, co-founded by physicist and Nobel laureate Steven Chu, makes the BreSafe Transparent Mask, which aims to improve masked conversations by allowing a listener to see the speaker’s lips. The hard-shell AtmoBlue mask, made by Blue Sky Labs, has built-in fans that blow incoming air across high-efficiency particulate absorbing filters and a sensor that monitors air quality for pollution. The Georgetown group developed nanoporous metal foams that are extraordinarily efficient filters, ultralightweight, and also reusable.
Levi Strauss took a different tack: Its mask, the Veil, offers N95-level protection with a simple design that any garment manufacturer can produce with scissors and a sewing machine—and sports the brand’s world-famous logo for added coolness. There is even a face covering especially for toddlers made by PaciMask that allows parents to attach a pacifier and features cartoon characters, animals, and spaceships. (Its slogan: “It’s just a mask, baby!”)
NIOSH’s standard N95 test assesses masks’ filtration efficiency by exposing them to aerosolized sodium chloride and measuring the amount that passes through. An N95 rating means a mask filters at least 95% of “nonoily” (hence the N) particles. But for the BARDA challenge, NIOSH devised additional tests. “We got to really think about the testing innovation,” says physical chemist Sandeep Patel, who heads the BARDA division overseeing the challenge. Recognizing that mask fit depends on face shape, for example, researchers designed five different-size mannequin headforms, based on the faces of nearly 4000 people. The mask challenge encourages entrants to supply analyses of how their masks fit digital versions of all five.
NIST fluid dynamicist Matthew Staymates will also test the finalists for leakage with schlieren imaging, which uses lenses and mirrors to visualize changes in air temperature. Staymates couples this with high-speed video cameras, which allows him to capture air escaping from the edges of masks when people breathe. The major challenge confronting maskmakers isn’t new materials, but design, Staymates says. “We can make fabrics that have amazing filtration efficiency, and the N95 is a great example,” he says, but “how can we get smart about designing shapes that can really seal well so my glasses don’t fog up?”
Gordon and Xiao see a bright future for their company even after the pandemic ends. “We started out as an antipollution mask, and I think it is still the core business,” Xiao says. Still, COVID-19—and becoming a BARDA finalist—has given the company a boost they never imagined, Gordon says: “The pandemic was the greatest marketing awareness campaign of all history.”