LUT University of Finland has launched a two year project named BIOPROT. The project is a response to issues that have emerged or heightened because of the Covid-19 pandemic, such as self-sufficiency in protective gear, making sustainable protective products and of course, the health and comfort of said products. In short, BIOPROT’s goal is to develop biobased products that are more user-friendly and ecological than the ones in use presently.
Needless to say, the project has sparked great interest and has a budget of EUR 5.2 million, with Business Finland financing 60%. BIOPROT is combining the knowledge 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 included.
BIOPROT is hoping to meet four ambitious targets. The first is 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 a billion masks a year).
The second goal is to make the protective gear much more efficient by developing new technologies that can eliminate viruses in protective materials. The project’s third goal is to design masks that are safer and more comfortable to use. And last but not the least: ensure Finland’s security of supply for critical products and boost self-sufficiency.
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. “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.
Susanna Tella, a leading expert at LAB, who focuses on the wellbeing and safety issues of the project, 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.
Natural Resources Institute Finland (Luke) and University of Jyväskylä have already found promising biobased antivirals, and are currently 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. 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).” said Varpu Marjomäki, who heads the research group at the University of Jyväskylä
Jyske and Marjomäki agree that with its multidisciplinary arsenal, the project will bring about a significant evolutionary leap in the manufacture of biobased protective equipment.
Premix, one of the companies involved in BIOPROT, is providing technology that can introduce antimicrobial qualities to polymer products. “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,” states Tuomas Kiikka, New Business Development Director at Premix.
Lifa Air, the biggest mask manufacturer in Finland, is also involved and a crucial player. “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. Solving this challenge is extremely important from the perspective of our company” says Mäkipää. He adds that materials-wise, the hardest nut to crack is meltblown. This filtering component of the mask is tougher to manufacture sustainably.
Teknikum Group, with more than 30 years of experience in the design and manufacturing of protective masks for demanding industries, 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.