Soap has emerged as one of the most effective weapons to combat coronavirus – it’s why washing hands thoroughly has become even more important during the pandemic. Texas Engineering researchers are teaming up with a group from the University of Florida to infuse chemicals in soap into face masks, enhancing their ability to protect people from SARS-CoV-2 and the COVID-19 disease it causes.

Led by Navid Saleh, an associate professor in the Department of Civil, Architectural and Environmental Engineering, the research team from the two universities landed a $197,000 grant from the National Science Foundation’s Rapid Response Research program to pursue the project. The goal is to make face masks active by infusing soap molecules and other materials into the passive mask surfaces. This phased project will begin with a do-it-yourself kit for health care workers and others to add a soap solution to strengthen masks’ defenses against coronavirus.

Graphic of the coronavirus flowing through a face mask that has been treated with soap.

The “surfactant” chemicals in soap bind with the virus and essentially take it apart. The experiment involves testing several different treatments on masks and measuring how well the chemicals deactivate the virus. The key is to choose the surfactants with the right properties to attach to mask surfaces, stay there during reuse and render the function of virus inactivation. The active masks will be tested for a range of respiratory viruses, in addition to SARS-CoV-2 strains.

There are two main types of masks: single-use surgical masks and more heavy-duty ones, such as the N95s. The surgical masks are meant to keep the people who are wearing them from spreading their own germs. But the surgical masks are not as effective at protecting people from airborne particles and droplets and none of the masks are safe for reuse, Saleh said.

He explains that the surgical masks can’t filter out particles in the air effectively because of their wide pores, compared to the N95s. Most viruses, including this coronavirus, Saleh says, are smaller than the pores in the surgical masks, meaning they can get through the material.

“We are planning to modify the surfaces of the masks and make these active, so that viruses can be removed more efficiently and can also be inactivated on the surface of the masks by the functional materials,” Saleh said.

He believes the U.S. may be headed for a shift, with masks becoming more commonplace as they are in other parts of the world. So, improving their ability to filter out harmful particles may become even more important.

The team is eyeing additional applications of its patent-pending formula in the future to work with HVAC systems for indoor areas like airplanes, hospitals and stores. Like surgical masks, Saleh explains, HVAC filters aren’t very effective at protecting against the virus and could also benefit from being activated with a soap solution.

In a later phase, the team will add micro- and nano-scale carbon materials that will further enhance protective capabilities of the masks. However, the initial focus is on a quick and easy solution that medical providers can implement.

“We want hospitals to have some sort of a modification for their masks so that they can reuse the masks right now, when there is an acute shortage of personal protection equipment for the frontline health workers,” Saleh said. “The impact has to be immediate.”

The importance of masks has increased as public health officials learn more about the virus. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention recently recommended people wear masks in areas where social distancing is challenging, such as grocery stores. Many states are now mandating such actions by issuing executive orders.

Saleh is working with colleagues from the University of Florida’s Department of Environmental and Global Health and UF Health Shands Hospital. The team includes UF associate professor and department chair Tara Sabo-Attwood, research professor John Lednicky and public health expert Cindy Prins.