Best Solution: Disposable Masks can Strengthen Cement

There are masks on the ground everywhere you go. Oddly, we’d be much better off if those masks were in the ground. A new study published in the journal Material Letters found that materials from old masks could be used to strengthen concrete and keep it from cracking.

Single-use masks that were being used during the pandemic are now turning out to be an environmental problem and researchers have demonstrated a way of incorporating these masks into a mixture of cement to create more durable and stronger concrete.

Researchers from Washington State University took the common, disposable medical masks that became so essential during our prolonged pandemic, cut them up, and tossed them into some common concrete mix.

The result: The concrete tested out at 47% stronger than concrete that didn’t contain traces of masks. That made the material more resistant to cracking, which over time can lead to concrete splitting open.

Overview

  • If not reused the disposable masks do not decay for decades and thus they pose a risk to the ecosystem.
  • In a paper that was published in the journal named Materials Letters, researchers have demonstrated that the mixture that was made using mask materials was 47 percent stronger than the cement that is commonly used.
  • Zhipeng Li, a graduate student in WSU’s Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering has led this study.
  • US Department of Transportation’s National Center for Transportation Infrastructure Durability and Life Extension funded this study.

Production of Cement

Production of cement is a carbon-intensive process, responsible for 8% of carbon emissions worldwide. If concrete is reinforced with microfibres, it can potentially reduce the amount of cement needed for a project, or make the concrete last longer, saving carbon emissions as well as money. Medical masks have fibres that can be useful for the concrete industry.

These waste masks actually could be a valuable commodity if you process them properly… This work showcases one technology to divert the used masks from the waste stream to a high-value application,” the release quoted the paper’s corresponding author Xianming Shi, professor of civil and environmental engineering, as saying.

Disposable masks contribute significantly to plastic pollution. According to Ocean Asia’s 2020 report, 1.6 billion disposable masks ended up in the oceans in 2020, amounting to approximately 5,500 tons of plastic. These single-use masks take around 450 years to biodegrade naturally and pose considerable environmental risks to ecosystems.

The global effect of Cement production– Cement production is a carbon-intensive process that is responsible for 8 percent of the world’s carbon emissions.

Use of Disposable Masks in Cement Mixture

  • Single-use masks that were being used during the pandemic are now turning out to be an environmental problem and researchers have demonstrated a way of incorporating these masks into a mixture of cement to create more durable and stronger concrete.
  • If not reused the disposable masks do not decay for decades and thus they pose a risk to the ecosystem.
  • In a paper that was published in the journal named Materials Letters, researchers have demonstrated that the mixture that was made using mask materials was 47 percent stronger than the cement that is commonly used.
  • Zhipeng Li, a graduate student in WSU’s Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering has led this study.
  • US Department of Transportation’s National Center for Transportation Infrastructure Durability and Life Extension funded this study.

In their proof-of-concept work, the researchers developed a process to fabricate tiny mask fibers, ranging from five to 30 millimeters in length, and then added them to cement concrete to strengthen it and to prevent its cracking.

For their testing, they removed the metal and cotton loops from the masks, cut them up and incorporated them into ordinary Portland cement, the most common type of cement used around the world and the basic ingredient for concrete, mortar and grout.

They mixed the mask microfibers into a solution of graphene oxide before adding the mixture to cement paste. The graphene oxide provides ultrathin layers that strongly adhere to the fiber surfaces.

Such mask microfibers absorb or dissipate the fracture energy that would contribute to tiny cracks in the concrete. Without the fibers, these microscopic cracks would eventually lead to wider cracks and the material’s failure.

In the end of this article we can say that the researchers are conducting more studies to test their idea that the graphene oxide-treated microfibers could also improve the durability of the concrete and protect it from frost damage and from deicing chemicals that are used on roadways. 

They also envision applying this technology to the recycling of other polymer materials, such as discarded clothing, to incentivize the collection of such waste.