Almost a month after the decision to close all non-essential businesses, social distancing has affected people of all ages in different ways. While many teenagers are passing time on social media and streaming sites, some are using the time to search for solutions for the COVID-19 pandemic.
Parnika Saxena of Chantilly, a junior at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology, has spent her time researching an idea for a different kind of protective mask: a graphene mask.
“Every day at the dinner table, COVID-19 was all my family would talk about. Seeing how serious it was getting and the impact that it was having on our community and around the world, I started thinking about what could be done. I had learned a couple of things from my school club, nanotechnology club, as well as chemistry class so I started looking online and did research.”
Saxena hopes this mask will be produced for both healthcare workers and the public.
THE GRAPHENE MASK differs from a standard cloth mask or N95 mask in four key ways.
“What makes it different from existing masks is that: it covers all openings of the face, its use of nanotechnology allows for the passing of oxygen yet stops COVID-19 particles from passing through, it is transparent, and it is lightweight, strong, and flexible, making it easy to fit as a mask.”
Dr. Robert Hurt, director of the Superfund Research Program Center at Brown University, focuses on nanomaterials and their applications for human health and the environment. He has done work with the use of graphene as an environmental barrier.
“This is a neat idea and the student did very good background research on the science behind it. We would not be able to fabricate such a mask in a practical way in the near term, but this is a cool futuristic vision that could define research that might lead to a graphene mask.”
A lesser-known form of carbon, graphene displays many properties Saxena considers valuable to creating a mask.
“It [graphene] is an allotrope of carbon, similar to diamond and graphite which are different forms of carbon. Graphene on its own is atomically thin; an experiment was done (this is how it was discovered) where just by taking some tape and sticking it onto graphite or pencil lead, that one layer had graphene flakes.”
To accommodate the function of a mask, Saxena proposes that the graphene should undergo a nitrogen doping process.
“Graphene is impermeable on its own, but when nitrogen doping happens, it goes through a chemical process, then it opens up these pores that selectively allow oxygen but not COVID-19 particles.”
Dr. Hurt emphasizes the importance of thorough testing, especially because the process of nitrogen doping has never been implemented in a mask before.
“The introduction of pores by nitrogen doping is interesting, but one would have to test whether those tiny atom-sized defects would allow a human to push their full breath volume through the sheet in just seconds.”
While the original mask design consisted solely of graphene, further research points to a combination of materials for maximum protection. A solution Dr. Hurt proposed is to add multiple layers, but it comes with its drawbacks.
“Regarding strength, graphene is indeed super strong compared to other substances of equal cross-section, but if graphene is suspended freely as an atomically thin monolayer, that of very little material, it can rip quite easily. One might need multiple layers but then one gives up some transparency.”
SAXENA proposed another solution, combining a layer of graphene with a textile.
“Graphene is atomically thin so it can’t stand on its own. As I've been doing more research. I've been looking into using it as a coating for textiles so that it could be fashioned in a 3D mask.”
The high production cost and lack of manufacturing processes mean further research must be done for the graphene mask to be produced and sold. Nevertheless, Saxena believes graphene is an invaluable material and could be used in other life-saving products.
“I think it [graphene] has a lot of potential and I wanted to get the word out and start a conversation about this ‘wonder material’. Perhaps people with sufficient resources can not only apply it to masks but other products.”