Student researchers turn to lotus plant to design fog-free PPE

fog-free PPE
Photo: University at Buffalo

Students in the US have applied the science behind why water beads up on lotus leaves to solve a pesky problem that arose during the coronavirus pandemic.

The students at the University at Buffalo School of Dental Medicine created free face shields and comfort bands as a type of personal protective equipment (PPE) with 3D printers that were eventually used by some 3000 dental professionals in university centres across the country. First, however, the students had to figure out how to prevent the shields from fogging up, which makes it hard for wearers to see.

Commercially available anti-fogging solutions found in eyeglasses and car exteriors were not suitable due to their potential to irritate the skin or cause sickness if inhaled or ingested.

Lotus leaves provided a eureka moment for the researchers.

“The hydrophobic nanostructure keeps water from being absorbed in the leaves,” A/Prof Praveen Arany said.

“They float and secrete a natural wax.”

After looking at several formulations of wax that would keep the PPEs clear and non-toxic, the research team discovered that a combination of carnauba and beeswax created optimal results.

“With a couple of adjustments, the condensation just rolled off,” A/Prof Arany said.

The research is published in Peer J Materials Science.

The idea for the project came about because dentists needed clear shields that also could accommodate dental loupes, the magnifying glasses they wear while examining patients’ mouths.

The dental school’s 3D printers, which had previously been used to create and investigate medication-filled 3D-printed dentures, smart fillings and bone regenerative scaffolds, were sitting idle once the pandemic hit.

“The strategy was to create something like N-95 masks that were transparent,” A/Prof Arany said. 

“The pandemic, with its need for protective masks and suits, exacerbated the fear that some people have of dentists. Because of the opaque nature of the masks, nonverbal cues were missing.”

Students started working with A/Prof Arany in spring 2020, and they continued to perfect them over the next year, including solving the fogging issue. They also discovered that isopropyl alcohol provided the best disinfectant for the reusable shields that wouldn’t disrupt the anti-fogging agents and figured out how to shape the masks at a slight angle so that the edge wouldn’t hurt the wearer’s face.

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