Doctor wearing a mask

Virus-deactivating mask project receives NSF RAPID grant

A research team led by Associate Professor of Chemistry Omar Farha has received a $200,000 grant from the National Science Foundation to develop a chemically modified face mask that can deactivate viruses, including the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19.

In addition to reducing the spread of the virus, the innovation will allow healthcare workers to re-use protective face masks, which are in critically short supply.

The project is the latest at Northwestern to receive a rapid response research (RAPID) grant from the National Science Foundation, which has called for immediate proposals that have the potential to address the spread of COVID-19.

Farha’s team is not starting from scratch. The group already has created a nanomaterial that deactivates toxic nerve agents — an innovation that will protect those facing hazards such as chemical warfare. The new research will build upon that work to incorporate antiviral agents into equipment that will protect healthcare workers as they combat the COVID-19 pandemic.

Adapting MOFs

Farha works with metal-organic frameworks, or MOFs — nano-sized, spongelike materials that can capture gases, vapors and other agents. In December, Farha published a study explaining how he and his research team had created a zirconium-based MOF that in minutes could degrade some of the most toxic chemical agents known to mankind: VX and soman (GD), a more toxic relative of sarin.

“We hope with small manipulations that we could deploy this to be antiviral as well,” Farha said.

Farha describes MOFs as “sophisticated bath sponges.”

“Imagine a sponge in the kitchen or bath,” he says. “It has a lot of holes. You spill water, but you can wipe it away easily — the water goes into those tiny holes. You squeeze the sponge and release the water, and you can use it again.

“What we do is make really smart, programmable sponges. The holes in our sponges are very ordered, and they have functions. You can use them to make very complex materials.  Our materials capture toxic materials in those cavities the way a bath sponge captures water — but the cavities have catalysts able to deactivate toxic chemicals.”

Slowing the spread of the disease

The technology already exists to combat viruses on surfaces, Farha notes. The next step is to incorporate that antiviral technology into the nanomaterial that has already proven itself capable of destroying toxic nerve agents — and then to use that material to manufacture the new masks or modify existing masks.

“The goal is for the virus to disintegrate once it contacts the mask, while filtered air will pass through the mask safely,” Farha said.  “As a result, these face masks have the potential to stop or slow the spread of the highly infectious coronavirus.”

Farha said the material should be able to work both ways — protecting the wearer from virus in the vicinity, as well as others who may come into contact with an infected person wearing the mask.

Other NSF RAPID grant winners

Other Weinberg College faculty who have received RAPID grants include sociologist Beth Redbird, who is conducting a real-time survey to measure the social impact of the pandemic, and biological anthropologist Thomas McDade, who, working with Feinberg School of Medicine researchers, is developing a simple and rapid finger-prick test for COVID-19 antibodies.

McCormick School of Engineering Professor Jiaxing Huang also received a RAPID grant in March to investigate antiviral chemicals that can be safely built into masks to self-sanitize passing respiratory droplets.