Researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology have developed an active fiber and process that uses heat to activate face masks and conform to an individual’s face.
The COVID-19 pandemic has highlighted the importance of face masks that effectively seal around the nose and mouth. However, faces and their features vary and make standard one-size-fits-all masks less effective.
Lavender Tessmer, a doctoral candidate in MIT’s Department of Architecture, has created an active fiber and process that uses heat with a specific knitted textile architecture to activate a mask to conform to specific faces. It uses standard textile equipment and a new customization process that allows any manufacturer to create a personalized mask.
Before the pandemic, Tessmer was working with Associate Professor Skylar Tibbits in the Department of Architecture on programmable materials that can be activated to sense, react and transform with the goal of creating high-tech clothing. The focus changed for researchers in the spring of 2020.
“Lavender was already trying to make textile garments with a custom fit, so we could quickly transition to making custom masks,” Tibbits said in a press release. “But the main challenge with any customization is that you can’t make every mask unique. It becomes a factory logistics problem. You must be able to mass produce them. Customers don’t want to wait weeks or months for their unique mask. »
The mass-produced mask is tailored to an individual face using a two-dimensional or three-dimensional knit structure created by Tessmer. She also created one of two active fibers needed to react to heat so that the fabric moves in a predictable way.
“There had to be a clear relationship between the amount of heat applied, the method of application with the robot, and a predictable outcome in the dimensional transformation of the fabric,” Tessmer said. “It was an iterative process between developing the multi-layered fabric, measuring its dimensional change, and then allowing the robot to apply heat in a repeatable and predictable way.”
The mask’s starting shape is large enough to fit almost any face before wearing. Tessmer inputted the dimensions of an individual’s face, and the knit masks were activated with a robotic arm and a heat gun that applied heat in specific patterns to precisely fit them to the unique facial measurements.
“The goal was to transform a mask to get the perfect fit for anyone’s face, which is a major challenge with masks and other garments,” Tibbits said. “No one has really figured out how to do this other than hiring a tailor or having a lot of standard sizes that don’t fit perfectly.”
The group, working with the Ministry of Supply, designed, tested and developed a mask in five days and produced 4,000 masks in two weeks for healthcare workers.
Like many sewn-at-home masks during the pandemic, the fitted masks from Tessmer and Tibbits focus on how the mask fits and not what properties the material needs to filter out airborne particles, but filters can be included to improve efficiency, the researchers said. Form-fitting masks are reusable and washable.
“Our goal was better fibers and a controllable, repeatable process to create a bespoke mask,” Tessmer said.
“At the end of every project, there are always things you find that need improvement. There’s a lot of future fabric development, for example. But I’m happy with the project because it’s a working proof of concept for my idea, and I’m confident it works.