Wearing a face mask at the gym or while exercising in groups has been one of the frustrations of Covid for many athletes.
Now a facial covering has been made using artificial intelligence, which can protect the wearer while remaining breathable.
Researchers have created a way to allow the wearer to increase the amount of air they breathe with a dynamic respirator that modulates its pore size in response to changes in the surrounding environment.
After working up a sweat, the wearer will be able to breathe in more air while high air pollution levels will cause the pores to contract, resulting in increased filtration.
Face masks remain mandatory on some modes of travel in countries around the world more than 18 months into the Covid-29 pandemic.
But face coverings that filter out harmful pollutants are also worn by people with respiratory problems.
No masks currently on the market can adjust to changing conditions so their filtration level remains the same. Over time, the trapped, exhaled breath can create sensations of heat, humidity, bad breath and discomfort, especially as breathing increases during exercise.
Lead researcher Seung Hwan Ko and his colleagues set out to make a respirator that could adjust its filtration characteristics automatically in response to changing conditions.
The professor in applied nano and thermal science at Seoul National University in South Korea and his team devised a mask fitted with a dynamic air filter made of electro-spun nanofibres and fitted with micropores.
Dr Ko told The National he expects his invention will make waves in the market for face masks.
“I think our AI-driven mask is the first demonstration to consider the dynamic change of user’s demand and environmental condition.
“I am sure this will be a big game-changer in the wearing face mask because it changes the current focus in mask from filters to people (users) for the first time.”
He also said the AI-driven mask could offer an alternative to people who find regular masks unbearable to wear.
“When I go to gym or jogging, I felt strong urge to take off the mask during exercise,” he added.
“And I also could see many people put the mask away while using running machine.”
Dr Ko said he expects the new mask to “dramatically reduce the number of people who refuse to wear the ordinary mask because they find them uncomfortable.”
Tiny holes expand when the filter is stretched, allowing more air to pass through.
A large increase in the breathability of the filter was achieved with a loss of only 6 per cent in filtration efficiency.
The team then placed a stretcher around the filter that was connected to a lightweight, portable device containing a sensor, air pump and micro-controller chip.
The device was used to communicate wirelessly with an external computer running AI software that reacts to particulate matter in the air.
It also changes a person’s respiratory pattern during intense exercise.
Two of the filters were placed on either side of a face mask and tested on human volunteers.
When a volunteer exercised in a polluted space, the stretcher was found to correctly generate a smaller increase in pore size compared to when they were working out in clean air.
Notably, the AI software allows the respirator to adapt to each persons respiratory characteristics, and it could be help to develop personalised face masks, researchers said.
The study was published in ACS Nano, a peer-reviewed scientific journal run by the American Chemical Society, a non-profit organisation chartered by the US Congress.