Made in Canada: Inside FPInnovations’ work developing biodegradable face masks
By Ellen Cools
As the COVID-19 pandemic continues, news has been spreading about a different type of plague: disposable face masks are creating a new plastic pollution crisis. There are reports of face masks floating in the ocean like jellyfish, clogging up rivers and streams, and littering beaches and roads around the world.
But FPInnovations is working to come up with a ‘Made in Canada’ solution that will help protect the general public while reducing the amount of waste associated with disposable face masks. In September, the research organization announced it had successfully developed a biodegradable, sustainable filtration media made from wood fibre for single-use face masks.
Responding to a national need
According to Doug Singbeil, industrial sector leader for bioproducts at FPInnovations, the main motivation behind this project was “to engage the Canadian forest sector in responding to a national need – in this case, materials for making general purpose masks or other types of masks to address the COVID crisis.”
The government of Canada invested $1.3 million in the project as part of Natural Resources Canada’s Technologies Programs’ contribution agreement with FPInnovations through the Forest Innovation Program.
This partnership has been “long-standing,” Singbeil says. “It’s actually a collaboration between the federal government and FPInnovations to help transform the forest sector to be able to make and produce bio-sourced products of all kinds.”
But what was the process for creating this biodegradable, sustainable filtration media?
FPInnovations undertook an eight-week research “sprint” during which time researchers looked at the science behind filtration and paper-making to understand whether the filtration media would meet the goals of a general-purpose mask for public use, Singbeil says. They also had to make sure that this was something that could be manufactured using equipment that paper manufacturers in Canada already use.
“This way, the forest sector could respond to this emergency or future emergencies by very quickly shifting their manufacturing capacity to make filtration media if desired or needed,” Singbeil explains.
By the beginning of September, the team had successfully developed a recipe of fibres from a mix of hardwood and softwood trees. This blend of fibres works together to meet the requirements of the filtration media, such as filtration efficiency and permeability, Singbeil says. In other words, the material has to allow wearers to breathe while also protecting them and others from the virus.
“The filtration media itself is very good,” he says. “The efficiency of the mask made with our filter media is about 60 per cent. By comparison, surgical masks require a filtration efficiency of 95 per cent. So, it’s not yet meeting the requirements for surgical masks, but it’s very much meeting the needs for general purpose masks.
“For example, cloth masks have a filtration efficiency of about 30 per cent based on the testing we’ve done internally, and there’s a very wide variability of filtration efficiencies in the masks for the general public. So, on the whole, this media is extremely good and I’d say it more than meets the needs for a general-purpose mask.”
This filtration media can also be used in a number of other applications, such as air filters, Singbeil says.
“Another objective here is to understand filtration using cellulose-based fibres,” he explains. “There are applications everywhere for filtration media in our everyday lives, and for the most part, the filtration media that are used are based on plastics or plastic materials. So, what we learned from this project will also help us understand how to replace plastics with cellulosic-based fibres.”
This opens the door for a number of new markets for the Canadian wood products industry.
A fully biodegradable mask
But FPInnovations doesn’t plan on stopping there.
In fact, the research organization has already embarked on phase two of the project, which will take approximately six to 10 months. There are three goals for this phase, Singbeil says.
The first is to produce masks commercially using the filtration media that has been developed. FPInnovations is currently collaborating with mask manufacturers to test these masks for commercial production.
The second is to increase the efficiency of the filter and look at other attributes that may be necessary to make the mask suitable for surgical use.
“The third objective is to actually find a way to make a fully biodegradable mask,” Singbeil says. “Right now, the filtration media itself is biodegradable, but it’s the inner layer of a three-layer mask. The two outer layers, even in the current iteration, will still be made of plastic-based materials. We’ve been able to replace about 40 per cent of the plastic in a general-purpose mask, but the ultimate objective is to be able to make a fully biodegradable mask.”
As with the biodegradable filtration media, the intent is to find ways for pulp and paper companies to manufacture the outer layers for these masks as well. This way, the material for the masks will be made in Canada by Canadian pulp and paper mills, Singbeil says.
Consequently, this project will demonstrate “the ability of the forest sector to develop bio-sourced materials and products that can displace plastics and be fully biodegradable,” he adds.
Of course, developing a biodegradable, sustainable face mask will also have far-reaching consequences for the environment.
“I think it’s extremely important because you just need to look around at the masks that are discarded after one use and left lying on the ground or not disposed of effectively,” Singbeil says. “Having a biodegradable mask is incredibly important to making the use of masks sustainable.”
This project will also help set in motion a future where more single-use plastics can be replaced by sustainably sourced biodegradable materials. The key point is that the filtration media, along with other future products, are coming from sustainably harvested forests, Singbeil says.
“Even if the use of masks declines as we come out of the current crisis, the industry will be well-positioned to respond to the next event, if it ever comes. And in the meantime, we’re also developing and using the knowledge we’ve gained from this exercise to continue to find ways to make these sustainably bio-sourced products for everyday life,” he concludes. •