The race to make a better face mask is on.
Universal usage of face masks could nearly eliminate the coronavirus pandemic in the United States, but many people still don't wear them. Teams of young innovators from around the globe are trying to solve this problem by making a better mask that is more comfortable.
There's money on the line, too.
"We understand that masks can be ill-fitting, uncomfortable, unfashionable, and that the most effective masks are often unavailable or expensive for everyday people," Peter H. Diamandis, XPRIZE founder and executive chairman, said in a written statement. So XPRIZE "turned to one of the most innovative groups on the planet — young entrepreneurs in their late teens and early twenties."
Diamandis said the challenge is "looking for new approaches that have never been tried before and looking to put the best ideas into production."
Here are renderings of the 10 semifinalist designs, provided by XPRIZE:
The Australian 6Minds Melbourne team developed the ProtectR mask, a reusable mask with a removable filter and attachable face shield. It has a head strap rather than ear loops and an aluminum nose piece that the 6Minds team says prevents leaks and glasses from fogging.
Cyfive — made up of childhood friends Jared Goering and Spencer Steinert — created a mask made of soft, hi-tech fabric that wicks away moisture, and has a two-piece design that helps mold the mask to your face to prevent slippage and glasses from fogging, says the team. The design also has double layers only over the nose and mouth where it's needed.
The Luminosity Lab's FloeMask was created by students John Patterson, Katie Pascavis and Tarun Suresh at Arizona State University. The mask is made of medical grade filter material, has a bifurcated chamber to keep hot breath air away from the face and directs air out the filter instead rather than the top of the mask, preventing glasses from fogging, according to Luminosity Lab. It also has an elastic chin cover and comes with a fob that lights up when the wearer speaks.
Hawaii's Team Merlin! is led by engineer Brandon Zunin. The footprint of the Merlin mask is much smaller than that of a surgical mask, exposing 60% more of a person's face, and its construction is stiff, preventing it from collapsing on the wearer's face when inhaling. The shape of the mask also brings air down and away from the face when breathing and the edge has a "peripheral seal design" to eliminate a wearer's glasses from fogging, according to Merlin!.
The reusable Naija Force mask, developed by Nigerians Ifedayo Ojo and Samuel Akinola, is transparent and "light as a feather so you forget you have the mask on," and has a replaceable filter, according to Ojo. The straps can be worn around the ears or head, and there is a flap that allows the wearer to drink (presumably through a straw) without taking off the mask. The founders aim to use their innovation to positively reflect on Nigerian youth, too. "That in spite of all we are made to contend with, we remain resilient," the team says.
Team Polair, a group 25 undergraduate bioengineering students studying at Johns Hopkins University, designed a modular mask that has a flexible magnetic frame and customizable front attachments — a clear, anti-fogging front so the wearer's lips are visible and an N95 front. A steel wire holds the face mask away from the wearer's face.
PROTechThor was designed by student Enjeck Cleopatra in Cameroon in central Africa. The mask has outer and inner silicon shells between which any number of filters can be inserted. It also has a battery powered fan built in to prevent the wearer's face from getting overheated, according to Cleopatra, and a clear front flap that can be opened to eat and drink. The mask comes in three sizes and there is an option for a removable clear visor to protect the eyes (though it is not shown on the prototype).
San Francisco-based R&N is a team of two teen sisters who designed the modular "Mode" mask so that individual pieces can be swapped out, washed and reused. The outer wool layer has versions from "glow-in-the-dark to smoke-resistant," and the inner layer is made of beechwood tree fibers. The silicon mask frame keeps the mask elevated away from the face, and the mask band sits at the base of the neck to remove pressure from the wearer's ears and uses magnets to close, says R&N.
Mask company IdMASK was founded in 2014 by Henry B. Sung, a year after his grandmother had a stroke related to what Sung believes was air pollution-related heart disease. Younger sister, Lina Sung, leads the team, which designed a mask that sticks to the face with silicon (the kind used in adhesive bras) to "make it 100% airtight no matter the shape of the user's face," according to Lina Sung. The team plans to use the silicon adhesive solution for next generation N95 masks, too.
Team Sages — Julie Seven Sage, a 16-year-old scientist based in Nashua, and her father, Daniel — created a translucent mask with a secure seal that has inflatable tubing at the edge to prevent leakage. Plastic cones in the silicon around the wearer's mouth and nose amplify a wearer's voice between 5 and 9 decibels, and there is a patent pending, according to the team. The bottom of the mask can be also extended down over beards.
The top 10 prototypes were lab tested by 3M and Honeywell to ensure they meet the same filtration requirements as a surgical mask.
The $1 million prize XPRIZE will be split between one winner and two runners up, who will be judged on ingenuity, effectiveness, style and ability to overcome common barriers. A $10,000 people's choice award will go to the team who can drive the most social engagement.
Launched in 1994, XPRIZE has operated 17 incentive-based innovation challenges in areas from spaceflight to oil cleanup and has given out $140 million in prize money.
Disclosure: A portion of the $1 million prize money was provided by Jim Cramer, the host of "Mad Money" on CNBC. Correction: This story has been corrected to indicate Sung's grandmother had a stroke.