CST Academy researcher Katri Laatikainen champions safe re-use of face masks

As the global Covid-19 crisis hit with full force in March 2020, Academy researcher Katri Laatikainen from CST felt a pressing need to do something. The initial predictions on the spread of the pandemic looked grim – and one particular problem involved face masks.

“I remember thinking that we may run out of masks altogether here in Finland,” she says in August, five months later the initial shock. “I was concerned and started to think about solutions to this problem.”

Laatikainen’s most recent research topic was not exactly related to the new dilemma: previously, she had been developing metal selective separation and purification materials, sensors and processes for environmental applications and qualities and materials of adult diapers. Now she needed to pivot towards masks and virus prevention – and fast.

Worst Case Scenario Looming

Laatikainen realized that starting mask production from scratch would probably take up a lot of time and resources. But what if you could use masks again and again – via an effective sanitization process?

“Naturally, most masks are disposable and meant to be used only once. But if masks are running out altogether, the risk of taking a used mask and using it again seemed negligible, if the mask could be properly sanitized,” she says, adding that the re-use of masks was designed to be deployed in a true emergency, when there was no other viable option.

Actually, the Finnish Defence Research Agency (FDRA)and Technical Research Centre of Finland (VTT) had been studying a certain hydrogen peroxide steaming process years before. “I had heard about this in a 2019 seminar where researcher Tarmo Humppi from FDRA was showcasing the method.”

Plan & Execute!

Laatikainen reached out to Professor Markku Mesilaakso at FDRA and through his advice, got in touch with senior researcher Ilpo Kulmala from VTT. After that, she enlisted the aid of Emeritus Professor Petri Ruutu from the Finnish Institute for Health and Welfare (THL), Erja Mäkelä from Finnish Institute of Occupational Health (FIOH) and Tarja Vainiola from Finnish Medicines Agency FIMEA.

Laatikainen envisioned a quick-to-set-up industrial facility where used masks could be sanitized in a large-scale, rapid operation. But how to get those masks?

“Susanna Tella from LAB University of Applied Sciences spearheaded the collection of used face masks from hospitals all over Finland.”

With a steady supply of masks, Laatikainen put together a team for the sanitization and re-use of FF2 and FF3 masks, with CST and other elements of LUT providing additional support.

Kick-Start the Sanitization Facility

Pretty soon the Finnish Defence Forces stepped forward to build the actual facility in Lakiala, Ylöjärvi, Finland.

“The construction of the facility started on April 6 and was concluded on May 8,” Laatikainen looks back.

The most intense test phase took place in June, yielding great results:

“According to the test results, once the previously used masks go through our process, they emerge microbiologically clean, meeting the technical requirements for face masks,” she says. The capacity of the sanitization facility is 20,000 face masks per one treatment (60 000 face mask per day) and the masks can be treated 2o times without compromising safety.

Safety Comes First

As the viability of the concept was proven, the outlook for the spread of Covid-19 in Finland had, fortunately, changed. The pandemic itself was contained rather well, there was no shortage of masks – and the rapid response sanitization facility could stand down.

“We’ve now dismantled the facility, but it can be up and running again in seven days,” Laatikainen says. Therefore, as Finland and the world are bracing themselves for the second wave of the virus, there is a tested-and-true safety option already waiting in the wings.

Networking to the Max

For Laatikainen, the past months have been a blur. “I checked my phone records from March 23 to the end of May: a total of 4,016 minutes,” she smiles.

Laatikainen credits both CST and LUT for giving her the support she needed to move on with her concept.

“Putting together the project plan in such a rapid manner was very demanding, and I received invaluable aid from LUT every step of the way.”

Written by Sami Anteroinen, Dialog Designs Oy