Photograph showing the stickiness between the wearable concept and human skin. (All photos via showme.missouri.edu/)

They’ve been a divisive issue for the past two and a half years, but perhaps this is the next step in the face mask conversation.

Zheng Yan, an Assistant Professor in the MU College of Engineering at the University of Missouri, recently published two studies showing different ways to improve wearable bioelectronic devices as well as materials to provide better real-time monitoring of a person’s health.

One focus of Yan’s work has been to develop breathable soft bioelectronics. The integration of bioelectronics in a mask aims to monitor someone’s physiological status based on the nature of the person’s cough. The findings were recently published in ACS Nano, a journal of the American Chemical Society.

“Different respiratory problems lead to different cough frequencies and degrees,” Yan said. “Taking chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) as an example, the frequency of cough in the early morning is higher than that in the daytime and night. Our smart face mask can effectively monitor cough frequencies, which may assist physicians with knowing disease development and providing timely, customized interventions.”

Scientists have been using a laser-assisted fabrication approach for a decade, and Yan’s work is one area that could still benefit from this approach.

“Laser-assisted fabrication is simple, scalable, cost-effective, and easily customizable,” Yan said. “This can lower the cost of wearable electronics and benefit both their practical, one-time use and personalization by providing customized devices for health care applications.”

These masks help illustrate the concept of integrating bioelectronics in a breathable face mask.

Yan said his team studied the potential of using MoO2, a metallic conductor.

“It exhibits high electrical conductivity, chemical stability, MRI-compatibility, and biocompatibility, which is well suitable for construction of various bioelectronic sensors and stimulators,” Yan said.

Yan said one potential application of this approach could be to help monitor a person’s breathing.

“Monitoring a person’s breathing rhythm will be useful for diagnosis of some diseases, such as sleep apnea,” Yan said. “Also, we could concurrently monitor the heart rate, heart rate variation and electroencephalograms to provide more comprehensive information for the study of sleep apnea.”

In a short Q&A with Tech Briefs below, Yan discusses the next steps in his research and its future potential.

Tech Briefs: When will this technology be commercialized?

Yan: The technology is still under development. We just initially verified the concept and need to further optimize parameters and explore scalable manufacturing methods. Thus, it is hard to estimate when it will be available for sale.

Tech Briefs: What's the next step in your research?

Yan: First, we will further optimize the technology and explore scalable fabrication method. Second, we plan to introduce more functions into our smart face masks.

Tech Briefs: Will there be a large market for the technology? Will it catch on?

Yan: Due to the COVID pandemic, facemasks are widely used in our daily life. For example, the global consumer facemask market generated revenues of $5.6 billion in 2020. However, current facemasks only provide physical protection against pathogenic microbial infections. There should be a large market for smart facemasks that can monitor our body statuses if we can lower the manufacturing cost.

Tech Briefs: How will this change the mask game?

Yan: Smart facemasks can not only protect us against pathogenic microbial infections but also could provide real-time monitoring of our body status. Thus, we could take proactive actions in the early stages of some disease conditions.

Tech Briefs: What are the pros? Cons?

Yan: Pros: Battery-free, easy to manufacture, low cost, and reusable; and incorporated biosensors are porous and do not block human breath.

Cons: Can only monitor cough and mask-wearing and more functions need to be incorporated; and cannot be wirelessly interconnected with smartphone for graphic data display.

Tech Briefs: Are you working on other such advances?

Yan: First, we are working on smart facemask with more functions, such as detections of viruses and volatile organic compounds. Second, we are working on a smart facemask, which can wirelessly transmit recorded data to a smartphone vie Bluetooth.

An infrared image of a person wearing a smart mask concept.