BIOPROT aims for biobased, virus-killing, user-friendly masks

Finnish top research organizations and industry players join forces to push innovation – and bring security of supply chain for masks back to Europe

In a fight against a global pandemic, self-sufficiency in protective gear such as masks is of crucial importance. Making sustainable protective products is another concern – and so is the health and comfort of the people wearing the equipment. To address these issues, LUT University kicked off a two-year project by the name of BIOPROT – and expectations run high.

 

Having already sparked widespread interest, the project has a budget of EUR 5.2 million, financed mainly (60%) by Business Finland. The aim of the project is to develop biobased products that are more user-friendly and ecological than the ones in use presently.

 

The project has four ambitious goals, starting with sustainable development: the aim is to reduce the amount of waste generated by disposable protective equipment by 4,000 tonnes per year (equivalent of up to billion masks a year).

 

Then there’s better protection: the project seeks to develop new technologies to destroy viruses in protective materials. Third goal has to do with well-being and safety: in essence, making masks safer and more comfortable.

 

And last but not the least: ensure Finland’s security of supply for critical products and boost self-sufficiency.

 

Biobased + antiviral + digital

 

Katri Laatikainen, Academy researcher at LUT University and LAB University of Applied Sciences, explains that the project brings together three innovative technologies: bio-based materials, nature-based antiviral solutions and digitalisation. According to Laatikainen, Finnish players can achieve competitive advantage on global market by introducing organic and antiviral components to the materials.

 

“Biobased, sustainable materials are very much in demand in the market now. Equally important is self-sufficiency: the Covid crisis has revealed that we are still vulnerable in that regard,” Laatikainen says.

 

BIOPROT is combining the lessons learned from three Business Finland funded Co-Creation projects – and doing this with a broad front: there are 15 organizations involved in the project, with as many as nine companies in the mix. Laatikainen comments that this emerging ecosystem is really the key to building something great:

 

“Our ecosystem will definitely speed up our development effort and give us better range.”

 

No more headaches

 

One of the key members of the ecosystem is LAB University of Applied Sciences which is focusing on the wellbeing and safety issues of the project. Susanna Tella, a leading expert at LAB, points out that studies show that long-term use of masks can cause carbon dioxide to build up in the body, as well as headaches or increased respiratory rate.

 

“We must pay special attention to these issues and really zero in on all elements of user experience,” Tella says, adding that LAB will tap into the valuable experiences of healthcare professionals to boost the project.

 

Natural Resources Institute Finland (Luke) and University of Jyväskylä have already found promising biobased antivirals, while looking into forest industry side streams. Presently, Luke is working on sustainable methods to extract these antiviral substances from biomass, explains Research Manager Tuula Jyske from Luke.

 

“We are also developing methods to add antivirals on masks and other materials without losing any of the effectiveness.”

 

Next level for biobased protective gear

Varpu Marjomäki heads the research group at the University of Jyväskylä which focuses on viruses, trying to understand the mechanisms behind viral infection, also how various molecules or surfaces may lower the infectivity of viruses.

“We have recently found several antiviral agents from nature together with Luke and my research group has shown the efficacy of those agents against both enveloped (coronaviruses) and nonenveloped viruses (Enteroviruses).”

Looking ahead, Tuula Jyske expects that the project, with its multidisciplinary arsenal, will bring about a real evolutionary leap in the manufacture of biobased protective equipment. “Furthermore, via corporate collaboration, these solutions should be able to enter the market and bring added value to Finnish business and society as well.”

Similarly, Varpu Marjomäki is looking forward to working together with many academic and business partners to create novel biobased functional materials.

“This can be achieved only with such a large consortium with excellent expertise on all aspects of the project,” Marjomäki says.

International appeal

University of Helsinki adds industry expertise and business angle into the BIOPROT project, says Paulus Torkki, Associate Professor, Healthcare Operations Management.

“One important user group is social & healthcare professionals – and that’s why it is a key demographic also in international comparison.”

According to Torkki, having multiple partners from different backgrounds makes it possible to develop new sustainable solutions – and come up with the right business models to support them.

 

“Finland has a solid expertise base for developing these solutions for also export. We can also spread the knowledge accumulated from the project to other areas,” Torkki believes.

 

Another major research partner is VTT which focuses on alternative biobased materials in mask production and the antimicrobial issues. Researcher Satu Salo from VTT says that with regards to materials development, VTT is zeroing in on biopolymers and their usage.

 

“The goal is to boost the performance level of biobased mask materials to a more professional level,” she sums up.

 

Technological edge

 

One of the participating companies is Premix, which has a technology that can introduce antimicrobial qualities to polymer products. Tuomas Kiikka, New Business Development Director at Premix, says that using this technology is a strategic focus area for the company – and this made BIOPROT such an attractive prospect from the start.

 

“Antimicrobic or antiviral personal protective equipment made out of biobased materials would be a tremendous innovation. In addition, with BIOPROT we enhance the compatibility of our technology to various mask manufacture processes and promote the use of biobased raw materials,” Kiikka says.

 

Lifa Air is the biggest mask manufacturer in Finland – and therefore a crucial player in the ecosystem. Vesa Mäkipää from Lifa Air says that the company is excited to participate in the project, since it shares the same goals.

 

“Looking at the materials used in a normal mask, it’s not so hard to increase biobased materials in there. The trick lies in making the mask 100% biobased.”

 

According to Mäkipää, materials-wise, the hardest nut to crack is meltblown. This filtering component of the mask is tougher to manufacture sustainably:

 

“Solving this challenge is extremely important from the perspective of our company,” he says.

 

Ecosystem excellence

 

Similarly, Teknikum Group has more than 30 years of experience in the design and manufacturing of protective masks for demanding industries. Teknikum participates in BIOPROT with its own project, says R&D Manager Mira Juutilainen.

 

“We wanted to be part of BIOPROT because it creates a wide Finnish ecosystem around respiratory protective equipment,” she says, adding that Teknikum is looking forward to close collaboration with other participants.

 

“Our goal is to have an alternative, safe and environmentally friendly material for our production that is suitable for demanding reusable respiratory protective equipment and use it to develop a prototype of such mask,” she says.

 

Similarly, also Teknos participates in BIOPROT with a project of its own, as the company is eager to utilise lessons from the project in wider aspects in business. Finding new biobased materials, testing methods and partner network gives the company opportunities to develop more sustainable coatings solutions to different market segments, says Pasi Virtanen, Group R&D Manager, Innovations, at Teknos.

 

“Sustainable materials are ranked very high in our current strategy. We hope to replace our current antimicrobial materials with biobased alternatives developed in the project,” Virtanen says.

 

“As COVID-19 pandemic has raised the interest for antimicrobial materials to a level never seen before, we hope to develop a range of coating products offering protection not only to face masks but to other surfaces and materials alike.”

 

BIOPROT (Bio-Based and Antimicrobial Materials in Protective Equipment) GOALS:

 

 

  1. Sustainable development: reduce the amount of waste generated by disposable protective equipment by 4,000 tonnes per year (up to a billion masks / year)
  2. Better protection: develop new technology to destroy viruses in protective materials
  3. Well-being and safety: make protective equipment safer and more comfortable
  4. Self-sufficiency: ensure Finland’s security of supply for critical products