Origami Artist Turns to Folding Face Masks Amid Pandemic Need

Jiangmei Wu assistant professor of design in the Ezkenazi School of Art, Architecture, and Design. Courtesy of Indiana University

What does the ancient art of origami have to do with a pandemic virus? For Jiangmei Wu, the technique is turning into a way to create and potentially provide face masks critically needed to slow COVID-19 infection. Wu, an assistant professor of design in the Ezkenazi School of Art, Architecture, and Design at IU Bloomington, recently explained how she is using her art in the COVID-19 fight:

What motivated you to pursue the idea of applying origami techniques to face masks?

As a Chinese native, I have many relatives living in mainland China and Hong Kong, so I have been following the news of the coronavirus outbreak since it was first reported in China in the early January. In late January, I received a phone call from my brother who lives in Hong Kong asking me if I could still buy surgical masks here in Bloomington or in Indiana, as there was an extreme shortage of masks in Hong Kong. My brother, like many other people in Hong Kong who lived through SARS epidemic in the early 2000s, is very aware of the importance of wearing a face mask during a respiratory epidemic. I tried to find masks in the United States for him, but by that time they were completely sold out. My brother also asked me if I could come up with a better design using origami that would fit the face tightly, as the surgical masks he had been wearing didn’t fit his face well. That was how I started to look into a new origami face mask design.

Talk about the mask prototype you’ve created.

It took me only a few hours to come up with the initial prototype design using origami technique. This is because I have been studying an origami technique called “semi-generalized Miura-ori”, or SGMO design, first proposed by Robert Lang, a well-known expert in origami. I had been working on the alteration of a technique similar to SGMO to create curvilinear folding designs that can be used as lampshades. (See some examples at https://www.foldedlightart.com/copy-of-anemoi/). So I had learned how to fold paper very quickly so it will fit any profile curve. I began translating what I knew from working with a lampshade to a face mask. I can fold the paper to fit a person’s unique face profile; the origami face mask can be adjusted to fit a person with a long nose as well as a person with a short nose.

What are the basic features of the alternative design you’re working on? (Note: watch Wu fold a simple face mask in this Youtube video.)

I want to have a very simple design so it can be easily manufactured, and a design that fits the face tightly. Loose fit is a major problem with current surgical masks. When I see millions of faces wearing the same surgical masks on the news every day, I’ve asked myself why people don’t have an alternative.

What are the challenges involved in this project?

One of the most significant challenges involved in this particular project is centered on the debate regarding whether face masks should be used among the general public during the COVID-19 pandemic. There are a lot of debates on whether or not the general public should be asked to wear face masks in their communities. As of early April, the  CDC doesn’t recommend the use of respirators or other face masks in the community. However, George Gao, director-general of the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention, said in an interview published in Science on March 27 that people not wearing masks during the COVID-19 pandemic in the U.S. and Europe is a “big mistake”. Similarly, a report titled “National coronavirus response: A road map to reopening” from the American Enterprise Institute, a public policy think tank, called for people to “wear fabric nonmedical face masks while in the community to reduce their risk of asymptomatic spread.” The situation surrounding COVID-19 is evolving very rapidly in the U.S., and changing policies and public habits will affect how this project will finally evolve.

Another challenge is how to combine a medical device with fashion so that people will be more likely to wear the mask.

You are reaching out to medical expert collaborators, tell us about that.

I hope to learn from medical experts what is most important in a new face mask design. I have been talking to Dr. Jonathan Merrell, assistant professor of clinical pediatrics at IU School of Medicine, who has emphasized the importance of having a tight seal around the edge of a face mask. If a face mask doesn’t have a tight seal, it is not very efficient in preventing the virus from entering or exiting the mouth and nose.

What are your next steps? Where do you hope to go with this work?

The project is at its beginning stage. I still need to test for various issues that occur when one wears the mask. I need to be able to answer a number of questions, including: How effective is the mask in preventing the spread of cough/sneeze droplets? How effective is the mask in preventing the penetration of a virus that is as small as 0.05 microns to 0.1 microns? How long can a person wear the mask comfortably? How can we add fashion styling so as to encourage everyday face mask wearing?

All of these aspects will influence the final design and material choices. After these initial developments, I would like to see the face mask get mass-produced. That is a whole different question, since there will be a lot of more challenges associated with mass production.

Can people learn to fold their own face masks?

My short YouTube video shows people how they can fold a simple face mask. There are many YouTube videos on how to create your own face masks, but most of these videos use sewing techniques and can take as long as 25 minutes. My video shows how one can fold a face mask in less a minute using foldable material such as Dupont’s medical Tyvek® 1073B, which is breathable and can be used as a microbial barrier. The other material choice could be HEPA filter paper. HEPA is a designation used to describe filters that are able to trap 99.97 percent of particles that are 0.3 microns. Currently, N95 masks certified by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health that are used by medical personnel have a 95 percent efficiency in filtering out particles that are 0.3 microns or larger. HEPA filter paper may be much more efficient.

Source: Indiana University

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