British Columbia

UBC researchers develop biodegradable medical masks made from wood fibre

Mask made from B.C. wood fibres could solve potential supply issues, researcher suggests.

Mask made in Canada could solve potential supply issues, researcher suggests

Reseacher's at UBC's Bioproducts Institute have developed medical masks made entirely from wood fibres. (UBC)

Researchers from the University of British Columbia say they have developed a biodegradable medical mask that could offer a solution to supply chain shortages amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

The university's Bioproducts Institute has put together a prototype mask made from B.C. wood fibres including pine, spruce, cedar and even recycled paper.

It's called the Can-Mask. Two versions of it are currently being tested to determine if they meet health industry standards ⁠— one using a commercial N95 filter, the other using a filter made from wood fibre.

"It's a very good mask [using material] that's abundant, available, sustainable and biodegradable," said Orlando Rojas, scientific director of the university's Bioproducts Institute and a professor in chemical and biological engineering, chemistry and wood science.   

"It's a very important forest-based material, and it gives us a little bit more independence from a geographical point of view," he added. 

Supplies of personal protective equipment, or PPE, have been strained as demand has swelled during the COVID-19 pandemic. (Paul Joseph/UBC)

Made in B.C.

With upwards of 80,000 cases of COVID-19 in Canada, PPE supplies have been strained. In March, Ottawa passed an interim order that allows masks, face shields and gowns to be imported and sold in Canada even if they do not meet Health Canada's pre-pandemic standards.

As of April 30, Health Canada had ordered 1.8 billion units of PPE, from masks to gloves to gowns. Much of the supply comes from China.

Rojas says the biodegradable mask could be sourced and manufactured entirely within Canada, 

First, it would have to satisfy Health Canada standards and then researchers would have to find a way to mass produce the product. Rojas is hopeful that the mask could meet N95 standards which means it has filtration efficiency of 95 per cent when properly worn.

"There is a big demand for these types of masks, and we can fulfil these needs," said Rojas.

Rojas says it would also soften the environmental impact of used and discarded masks. Littered PPE has plagued many communities since the start of the pandemic.

"There are a lot of [disposed] masks that people dispose that will eventually end up as microplastics, and that could end up being a huge environmental problem," he said.

"There's huge environmental pressure to look into new alternatives," he said.

The prototype masks made from various types of wood fibres are being tested to ensure they meet Health Canada standards. (Paul Joseph/UBC)