Researchers give COVID PPE a second life… as cement!

In Western Canada and around the world, the energy sector is rapidly transforming to one that promises to be cleaner, greener and more efficient.

Each month, the Canada West Foundation’s Energy Innovation Brief brings you stories about technology innovations happening across the industry – in oil and gas, renewables, energy storage and transmission.

The massive quantity of personal protective equipment (PPE) used during the COVID-19 pandemic brought with it an enormous waste problem. 


In Metro Vancouver alone, half a billion PPE items were disposed of in landfills in that same year. And these items don’t biodegrade easily—masks take over 450 years to decompose naturally.

Mask-wearing is likely to be around for a while; fortunately, a number of researchers are working on inexpensive and greener alternatives to traditional disposal methods.

Washington State University has found a way to use disposable masks to reinforce concrete.

The university’s research team broke down used polypropylene medical masks into microfibers and pretreated the fibres with graphene oxide before mixing them into cement as a strengthening agent. When compared to traditional cement, compression strength was slightly decreased (by about three per cent); however, tensile strength increased by 47 per cent. The researchers believe that fibres from the masks help dissipate the fracture energy that contributes to tiny cracks in the concrete. They hope the fibre reinforcement could help protect the concrete from frost damage and from de-icing chemicals used on roadways. This innovation is still far from practical application, but it demonstrates the growth of research in the circular economy, which aims to turn problematic waste streams into valuable inputs.

If you would rather turn your masks into energy, a team from Swansea University in Wales has done just that. Through a process called photoreforming, the researchers used sunlight and nanostructured semiconductors at ambient temperatures to break down masks and destroy viral pathogens at the same time.

Byproducts produced in the reaction include hydrogen as well as other stock laboratory chemicals. Not only does this innovation provide an alternative to incineration, but it also produces usable hydrogen fuel. The Swansea University team had previously been developing technology to break down plastics into hydrogen for energy generation but switched their focus to medical PPE at the beginning of the pandemic.