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Q&A: Renewable technology to mass-produce effective facemasks (Includes interview)

There are different opinions on wearing facemasks in public, although the wearing of facemasks is important for healthcare professionals. As things stand, there is a massive shortage of the this form of personal protective equipment. A company called Celluotech has a solution.

Cellulotech is a company focused on chromatogeny, which makes any cellulose-based material permanently hydrophobic while letting vapor go through (the Gore-Tex® of paper). Cellulotech believes cellulose has tremendous untapped potential for our economic future and our environment. The technology has passed the blood/fluid resistance (ASTM F1862) test in an independent United States laboratory, demonstrating the treated paper’s water barrier capabilities, paving the way for medical use, as per the current Food and Drug Administration requirements.

To discovery more, Digital Journal spoke with Cellulotech CEO, Romain Metivet about how Chromatogeny allows hydrophilic cellulose-based materials (such as paper) to be rendered permanently strongly hydrophobic (that is, water-proof) though their chemical reaction with long-chain fatty acid chlorides.

Digital Journal: How important is the use of masks to stop the pandemic?

Romain Metivet: Experts believe that the main source of transmission of COVID-19 is through droplets the human body produces when we cough, sneeze, or simply talk, which is why the use of face masks is crucial to stop the spread of the pandemic. Wearing a mask is not only the official recommendation of the World Health Organization (WHO), but also encouraged by government leaders across the globe. Countries where masks have been massively adopted during the early stages of the pandemic, are doing much better than others. Using the proper mask considerably lowers the chances of infecting others and can also protect the wearer from outside exposure.

DJ: What makes Cellulotech’s technology different from the paper masks currently on the market?

Metivet: As far as we are concerned, there is currently no paper mask on the market simply because there hasn’t been a solution that makes paper water-resistant, while keeping the breathability aspect intact – until now. Without Cellulotech’s solution, humidity, rain, or droplets would simply make any existing paper mask useless.

Cellulotech’s technology offers liquid barrier protection, which makes it more superior to both existing paper masks, and cloth masks. It protects the wearer, and whomever they come into contact with, it offers makes our solution far superior to cloth masks since it protects both the wearer and those they come in contact with.

It’s a common misconception to believe that surgical masks are made of paper, but they are actually made from thermoplastics which are quite complicated to manufacture. This raises a lot of issues when demand increases so quickly, which we saw happen during the pandemic. Since surgical masks also take more than 400 years to biodegrade, there’s also a negative impact on the environment.

Our technology simply allows the use of paper, which is naturally a great filter and massively produced everywhere, to make masks that have similar properties to surgical masks at a lower cost. Additionally, paper masks are not harmful to our environment as they biodegrade in just a few weeks in a landfill.

DJ: Can you tell me more about chromatogeny?

Metivet:The background story is actually pretty interesting. Dr. Samain, an accomplished chemist and prolific inventor, discovered it more than 20 years ago in his kitchen on a Christmas Eve while trying to make some fun gifts for his children. He then spent almost two decades working to perfect the technology and partnered with other research institutions to build an industrial prototype.

This is a green chemistry process (it does not require any solvent) that grafts a nanometre-thick monolayer of specific molecules on cellulose fibers. This makes it hydrophobic (it repels water) but doesn’t affect at all the breathability of the material like you could see with coated paper for example. More importantly, it is safe and the cost of treating paper is incredibly low. The process also keeps all the recyclability and biodegradability properties of the material which is not the case with the other solutions currently on the market.

As you can imagine, the possibilities are endless. Yet the technology remained unknown due to plastic dominating the manufacturing industry, and paper remaining in the shadows. With the war on plastic being waged at a global scale, we are now in a very different environment. That’s why Cellulotech has decided to develop new patents and shed light on the technology’s full potential.

I think it’s also important to specify that the process is already used at an industrial scale in France and South Korea. It’s not just something that can be done in a lab.

DJ: Can paper masks treated with chromatogeny be used for ordinary individuals, medical professionals, or both?

Metivet:Paper masks treated by chromatogeny can already be widely used. Their use has already been approved in France for professionals in contact with the public. We recently also passed the surgical mask standard that guarantees a liquid/blood barrier, making the masks ideal for use by medical professionals, as it is the main requirement of the Food and Drug Administration.

DJ: Are there any other forms of PPE that can be produced as a result of chromatogeny?

Metivet:We haven’t done prototypes yet, but we think the material could be excellent for medical gowns. Medical professionals have actually asked us to develop this as the ones they currently use do not breathe at all and are extremely uncomfortable. We would need to work on the paper used in order to make it as difficult as possible to tear. We are also exploring the option of creating single-use gloves.

DJ: Cellulotech was not originally developed with paper mask production in mind. Why was it important to shift the business on the onset of the pandemic?

Metivet:Indeed, our first focus was more on packaging and other applications. However, necessity is the mother of invention and urgency the father of change. Looking painfully at the increasing number of deaths, the unprotected medical professionals, the economic consequences of the various lockdowns, and the emerging “mask war,” we started to wonder if chromatogeny could help. Intuitively we felt it would work but we needed to work on the material, make prototypes and get them tested – which is where we are now.

DJ: Has the effectiveness of chromatogeny-treated on paper been tested or lab verified?

Metivet:Yes. Third-party labs in France and in the United States have tested the filtration, breathability, and liquid barrier properties of our mask prototypes. Of course, filtration and breathability depend on the paper used and the number of layers. Passing the liquid barrier test has considerably increased the interest from very large companies in our product. We are now looking forward to working with them on finding the best possible paper material to optimize filtration and breathability. Our overall goal is to change the way make surgical masks are made, and create a more effective, simpler and cheaper product that is also respectful to our environment.

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Written By

Dr. Tim Sandle is Digital Journal's Editor-at-Large for science news. Tim specializes in science, technology, environmental, and health journalism. He is additionally a practising microbiologist; and an author. He is also interested in history, politics and current affairs.

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