Research aims to understand, from microscale to macroscale, how fibrous materials react to temperature, humidity

TROY, N.Y. — Researchers from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute will study whether body heat, or even humidity from a person’s breath, for instance, may impact the effectiveness of the porous fibers that are used to make protective technologies, like face masks. With the support of a National Science Foundation grant, the team will use its expertise in fluid and solid mechanics to study the mechanical performance of fibrous materials when they are exposed to warm temperatures and humidity.

 “As you are wearing a mask, body temperature rises, and as you’re breathing through the mask, the local humidity also rises,” said Lucy Zhang, a professor of mechanical, aerospace, and nuclear engineering at Rensselaer, who is leading this research. “We’re looking at the structure, functionality, and the effectiveness of porous materials over time, and how they change based on these varying conditions.”

In collaboration with a team from the University of Utah, researchers will examine various properties of fibrous materials — down to the microscale — and use that information to build a computational model that can predict how effective a material will be in blocking various sized particles under different circumstances.

As the team builds the computational model, Zhang said, researchers will use machine learning algorithms to help process the multitude of parameters and scenarios they will study, from fiber orientation, porosity, and moisture content, to temperature levels and amount of humidity. The team hopes to develop an approach, with better models and tools, that any lab could use to evaluate a material and, in turn, improve the effectiveness of any wearable — from masks that medical personnel wear, to other protective equipment used by employees in the aerospace, food, or energy industries.

“What’s going to come out of this research is going to fundamentally change how materials are designed,” Zhang said.