By Goat Staff with files UBC

Researchers in the BioProducts Institute at the University of British Columbia have designed what could be the very first N95 mask that can be sourced and made entirely in Canada. It’s also possibly the world’s first fully compostable and biodegradable medical mask. Johan Foster, a former McBride resident is part of the research team.

“With escalating tensions during a pandemic, international supply lines for medical masks can break down, creating local shortages,” says Foster, a chemical and biological engineering associate professor in the faculty of applied science. “When we decided to design a mask back in March, we knew early on we wanted a solution that uses local materials, is easy to produce and inexpensive, with the added bonus of being compostable and biodegradable.”

Johan Foster, Orlando Rojas, Reanna Seifert and Daniela Vargas Figueroa of the UBC BioProducts Institute helped develop the mask. /UBC

The new mask—dubbed Canadian-Mask, or Can-Mask—ticks all those boxes, says Foster, who’s also the NSERC Canfor Industrial Research Chair in Advanced Bioproducts at UBC.

The researchers believe the mask is a good alternative to the synthetic masks currently in use. “With millions of disposable masks and gloves already polluting city sidewalks and potentially entering our rivers and oceans, we urgently need a biodegradable option to avoid making a massive impact on our environment,” says Foster.

Developing the mask took the combined efforts of a multidisciplinary team that included researchers from the faculties of applied science, forestry and science at UBC.

“The Can-Mask is just one of many opportunities for UBC researchers to help address an ongoing issue, while also stimulating B.C. and Canadian economies through novel research, use of local resources, and helping get everyone back to work,” adds Professor Orlando Rojas, the scientific director the the institute who was recently appointed as Canada’s Excellence Research Chair in Forest Bioproducts at UBC.

Mask prototyping is nearly complete, and a shift to cost-effective scaling and production is in the works.

“There is lots of opportunity in bioproducts, in forest based products in the materials we have within BC and within Canada to make value added products that can not only add to society but add value to the existing market,” said Foster.

The mask frame is made entirely from B.C. wood fibres from sources such as pine, spruce, cedar and other softwoods. One prototype uses a commercial N95 filter on the front of the mask, the other uses a filter specially designed by the UBC team from wood-based products. Both prototypes are currently being tested to ensure they meet health industry specifications for fit and permeability, with plans to apply for Health Canada certification in the near future.