SLC companies team up to develop face masksSep 21, 2020 04:56PM ● By Libby Allnatt
Two companies in Salt Lake City, O2TODAY and SINTX, are working to develop a face mask that inactivates viruses and bacteria. (Courtesy of Amanda Barry/O2 Design)
By Libby Allnatt | [email protected]
Two companies in Salt Lake City are teaming up to develop a face mask that packs a punch in the fight against COVID-19 and other viruses.
Dr. Sonny Bal, the president and CEO of SINTX Technologies (www.sintx.com), said the partnership with O2TODAY (www.o2today.com) will help create masks that people are happy to wear and that are effective at controlling the spread of infectious disease. The key is a material called silicon nitride.
Bal said that SINTX began antiviral testing of the material about a year and a half ago out of scientific curiosity. They found that silicon nitride was effective at inactivating several viruses, leading them to believe it would be a good material for masks during the flu season.
When COVID-19 came along, they started looking for mask companies and manufacturers, particularly in the Salt Lake City area, which is how Bal discovered O2TODAY.
“Specific to COVID-19, our hope is to inactivate the virus on synthetic surfaces,” Bal said. “For example, your masks, but more importantly, on tabletops, commonly touched surfaces, cell phone covers, screens. We know the COVID-19 virus can persist for days…If we create surfaces that don’t have to be wiped down with cleaning agents and bleach all the time, I think we can contribute to discouraging the spread of COVID-19 worldwide, particularly among the populations that are most vulnerable to it.”
Bal said the companies bring different strengths to the partnership.
“Silicon nitride is our main and only product for SINTX and we believe we are the world's leaders on this, having published on it and studied it, particularly its remarkable properties in terms of inactivating pathogens that have since been reproduced by other medical centers,” he said. “O2TODAY brings a phenomenal amount of knowledge about masks, their social positioning, the customer base, the retail sales, how to sell them, how to make them.”
Bal said silicon nitride works in a similar way that commercial cleaners do, essentially making its own ammonia.
“The surface chemistry has nitrogen in it which reacts with moisture, so if you touch a surface or you rub it with a moist rag, there’s a hydrolytic reaction with the water that produces a microscopic amount of ammonia on the surface,” he said. “It’s harmless to the human touch and it doesn’t smell, but when a microbe touches it, like bacteria or the virus, it’s inactivated, just like a commercial cleaner would.”
Think of masks as passive versus active. A regular cloth mask might trap the virus, but not kill it.
“Some studies have shown that the COVID-19 virus can stay active and infectious on a mask for up to seven days after you throw it out,” Bal said.
A more active mask would inactivate the virus.
“With silicon nitride, it’s a two-prong effect,” he said. “The material is harmless to human cells but will inactivate the virus. The speed of inactivation is very impressive. I’ve seen the effect within a minute so it’s not a matter of hours or days. Our strategy is to develop a mask that actively degrades and inactivates infectious agents like viruses and bacteria.”
Bal said they hope to have a commercially available consumer mask by the end of the year.
“The research we’re doing right now is integrating the silicon nitride particles or soluble products into the mask fabric in such a way that you’re not breathing the particles in. They’re all in the mask itself, and you can breathe easy…That work, which has begun, and started even before the agreement, gives us a timeline before the end of the year before we have a commercially available consumer mask.”
They also hope to eventually create masks that would be available on a medical level.
“Medical facilities would be a very important market because contamination is big in hospitals,” he said. “Medical personnel need masks. They’ve been wearing them before COVID-19. For them to have an active mask that kills pathogens would be very exciting.”
However, the process for such an endeavor would take a bit longer than that of the consumer product due to regulatory factors and additional data and testing that would need to be submitted to the FDA.
“It will take longer, but certainly the medical market is a key target for us,” Bal said.