The “slide-in” copper filter inserts for cloth masks manufactured by South African startup Aeris Mask in accordance with government guidelines have had massive interest, with the company selling its first units days after it finalised commercial production runs in mid-May.
“We are now launching a range of inserts and face masks online to make our offerings even more accessible, with international inquiries starting to come in.
“We see this as a sustainable business going forward, using copper not only in masks, but on common touch surfaces such as public restroom door handles and even bedspreads and pillow casings for hotels,” says Aeris Mask cofounder Neill Human.
He explains that Aeris Mask initially designed a personal protective equipment mask, but came across a study published in the New England Journal of Medicine in early April, citing the efficacy of copper in killing SARS-COV-2, the virus that causes Covid-19.
“It immediately made sense that copper could be an additional buffer for simple cloth masks that typically do not offer much protection. We set out on addressing the affordability and accessibility of face masks containing copper, as well as the conversion of cloth masks.”
Aeris Mask is subcontracting the services of Elektron Energy, an energy technology company, which has experience in copper and operates an industrial electroplating line that used a copper process prior to the development of the mask and filter inserts concepts.
It took Aeris Mask about 30 days and multiple design iterations to settle on a concept it believed could serve the masses and about another 30 days to set up manufacturing by converting some of the Elektron Energy processes and adding additional processes.
“Our products are manufactured in Strand, Western Cape, where we source a range of fabrics that are manufactured in South Africa and then produce the various copper components at our facility,” explains Human.
Manufacturing of the copper filter involves the production of various forms of copper through electrodeposition using novel electroplating anodes and cathodes and the processing of the specific raw copper materials in the various forms employed in Aeris Mask’s range of products. Textile processes are also required and comprise cutting, stitching and sealing.
“Seventeen people are involved in the manufacturing of the copper filtration face mask as it stands, with six of people added last month to process fabric and copper materials, and more to come. We have employed an additional three local seamstresses, who started work on June 4, and once our offering becomes available online and demand grows, we hope to increase our staff complement further.”
Aeris Mask can produce about 60 000 copper parts a month and is working to increase this capacity. It also subcontracts the manufacturing of masks locally on top of its production capacity to ensure that availability is not an issue.
Meanwhile, proving the effectiveness of the Aeris Mask copper filtration face mask compared with a regular cloth face mask has been the company’s biggest hurdle locally, says Human.
“During Level 5 and Level 4, no testing facilities were available to test our products. We have had to rely on international studies and publications to this effect and have used mask and filter materials that already comply with government guidelines on filtration efficacy and added copper in an attempt to expose any potential viral elements to as much copper surface area as possible.
“I have seen some worrying studies on how long viral constituents can survive on surgical masks, not to mention cloth masks,” states Human.
The company is engaged with various academics and academic institutions to test the efficacy of its masks.
While some international companies are producing similar products to Aeris Mask, these are not available locally and are expensive, says Human, noting that the company intends to sell its masks at a similar price to cloth masks.
However, Aeris Mask does not only sell masks, and has filed close to eight provisional patents and design registrations for products that contain copper.
One such additional product is a copper pouch, in which an Aeris Mask face mask can be inserted after use, exposing the outside surface to the copper contained in the pouch.
“This pouch can also be used with other masks that do not use copper to expose such masks to copper surface areas when not in use. We believe everyday items that pose a risk of contamination should also be exposed to copper and that’s why I personally like the pouch.
“By all indications, South Africa’s infection rate is on the rise, with the anticipated peak still ahead of us. After the extent of the intervention society has taken, every and any remotely feasible solution that can assist South Africans, should be explored with absolute urgency,” warns Human.