Most people who know about nanoparticle masks probably wish they didn’t, since these micro-filtering protection devices first entered public awareness during the SARS outbreak of 2003.
These masks have been equipped with a filtration system that uses clusters of nanoparticles to remove microscopic biological pathogens from the air, and they were a huge success in Asian countries where the SARS epidemic hit hardest.
Now that the initial fear has faded, nanoparticle masks are once again on the margins of public attention. But the fact remains that they can perform an array of useful functions and may become indispensable in the event of a future disease outbreak.
How do nano-masks work? A molecularly enhanced particle coating is put on the mask’s filter; the nanoparticles in the coating have a tendency to cluster together enough to create a layer of ions that works together with trace amounts of chlorine to catch and eradicate any undesirable particles they encounter.
The key difference between a nanoparticle mask and a mask with a normal filter is this process of eradication. Masks that have not been treated with nanoparticles can sometimes strain molecules from the air, but these harmful agents don’t disappear.
Instead, they sit on the mask’s filter and sometimes they can even breed and grow in this sheltered environment, ironically producing a high concentration of dangerous material in the mask itself, which has been designed to keep such substances out. Nanomasks, on the other hand, completely destroy every harmful particle they catch. This is why their popularity skyrocketed during the mass scare of the SARS epidemic.
Nanotechnology expert Kenneth Klabunde explains that nanoparticles have a life of their own and can attract, catch, and “eat” harmful bacteria and viruses without recourse to a traditional filtration system.
According to Klabunde, the four basic advantages of nanoparticles are as follows: they are abrasive enough to cut through the micro-bodies of bacteria; the chemical makeup of the nanoparticles reacts with bacteria to “soften” them; they can both attract and aggregate with bacterial bodies; and when combined with chlorine, as is done in the nanomasks, these nanoparticles can essentially “suffocate” the bacteria. In other words, the bacterial particle becomes deprived of oxygen and dies, after which the nanoparticles “eat” its dead body.
Gruesome though it may sound, it’s wonderful news to people caught in an epidemic. Nothing makes them feel safer than knowing that nanoparticle masks give them four layers of protection in one.
Unlike most nanotechnology that you may be familiar with, these nanoparticles have not been manipulated on the molecular level; they are merely broken down into extremely small pieces. Expert Steven Glapa describes it as a clever form of industrial chemistry, adding that many types of “smart” coatings use basically the same process.
In terms of nanotechnology as a discipline, these nano-masks represent the most basic form of nanoparticle research on the market. Most other nanotech products have been altered somehow, not simply ground into a powder and painted on. Its main effectiveness lies in the way that the nanoparticles naturally react to the chlorine additive, without which the mask would have no special function. With it, the mask becomes a super-filter.
Nanoparticle researchers also claim that these masks have a wider application, since at their most basic level they represent the ability to coat a filtering system with a layer of nanoparticles to increase its effectiveness. Anything that can be filtered can be super-filtered with this technique, and such an efficient nano-defense allows for removal of microscopic bacterial, biological, chemical, and viral agents.
Researchers anticipate that the filtration technology will eventually be used in air filters of all kinds, from asthma and allergy relief to industrial-grade toxin-removing air filtration systems. They also foresee direct applications in terms of water sanitation. Scientists are hard at work on a nano-filter that could easily be used in third world countries.
Water pollution is still a huge problem in many developing nations and causes hundreds of thousands of unnecessary deaths each year. Nanoparticle researchers hope that by adapting the nanoparticle mask’s technology to create a simple, cost-effective universal filter, they can save lives and improve standards of living across the world.
Nanoparticle goggles can be used in conjunction with masks, but so far they have served an entirely different section of the population. Canadian researchers are developing extra-sensitive infrared night-vision goggles for general military consumption, and they’re doing it with nanoparticles.
They’ve discovered that if they take a glass or silicon chip and apply a coating of conductive nanoparticles (also known as quantum dots) the end result is an infrared detector that can perform up to 10 times better than traditional models.
These updated goggles address an age-old problem faced by users of the conventional infrared night goggles. Older models relied on small amounts of reflected starlight in order to function, but their Achilles heel was that they became completely useless if the sky was overcast or the moon was hidden by clouds.
This older technique is based on near-wave infrared. The newer nanoparticle goggles can pick up both short-wave and near-wave infrared, which allows them to function in even extreme low-light conditions.
Edward Sargent, a professor at the University of Toronto and a leading nanoparticle researcher, was the first to discover this new infrared-enhancing technique. He realized that by evenly coating a silicon chip with quantum dots, he could achieve higher levels of infrared receptivity.
His technique involves sulfide nanoparticles that are only four nanometers wide. He bonds them to an oil-based molecule to keep them moving freely, then spin-coats and dries the solution onto the silicon chip in order to achieve an even distribution of quantum dots.
He can then tweak the resulting chip around to achieve slightly different effects if desired. He also equips his superior-performance chips with super-photoconductive properties: while each light photon that encounters the chip normally bounces off and activates a single electron, Sargent was able to engineer his chips so that they can trap every photon and keep it in circulation, achieving maximum energy gains and increasing the electrical current’s flow.