By Regina Stracqualursi

Over the past year and a half, we have all discovered the importance of material design — from the materials behind the face shields protecting health care workers to those behind the face masks used every day in schools and workplaces. Researchers from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and the University of Utah recognize the need for effective material design and with support from the National Science Foundation, are on a mission to improve it.

Specifically, the team is investigating how fibrous materials, often used to make face masks, are impacted when exposed to warm temperatures and humidity, such as what takes place when breathing. “We’re looking at the structure, functionality, and the effectiveness of porous materials over time, and how they change based on these varying conditions,” said Lucy Zhang, professor of mechanical, aerospace, and nuclear engineering at Rensselaer and leader of the research. “What’s going to come out of this research is going to fundamentally change how materials are designed,” she said.

The research team is building a computational model, based on the properties of fibrous materials, to predict the effectiveness of a material under a variety of conditions. The goal is to understand the underlying behaviors of porous materials, so they can be improved on a broader scale.