At the bhoomi pujan ceremony of the Ram temple in Ayodhya on August 5, 2020, the most high-profile event of the year, Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who otherwise used homemade face coverings, donned a N95 mask. The mask, called ‘Swasa’, was born of the research by Sandip Patil, a PhD scholar of the Indian Institute of Technology, Kanpur.
Work on these electro spun nanofibre masks had started in 2017-18 when Patil, now 39, was researching nanofibre technology for anti-viral and anti-bacterial face masks.
“It took us a year to develop the technology,” says Patil. “Our nanofibres are in the order of 50 nanometers and thus have superior filtration properties.”
Patil simplifies the process by drawing the analogy of a sieve. “The smaller the pores of a sieve, the finer will be the particles that it will allow to go through it.” Each SARS-CoV-2 virion (entire virus particle) is approximately 50–200 nanometres in diameter.
The masks developed by E-Spin Nanotech Private Limited, an enterprise founded by Patil in 2010, countered the deficiencies of existing masks. In addition to better filtration, these masks have greater breathability and safety. In late 2019, before the coronavirus pandemic outbreak, Patil and his team had been making what he labels “mini iterations” to the product. These included snugger side corner fitting, comfortable ear fittings and closer nose fittings.
While the technology was born in Kanpur, production was undertaken by a third party in Ahmedabad. This came as a boon as these were essentially the only N95 masks being produced in the state.
“From 5,000 masks a day, we went to producing 40,000. From one shift, we went to three. My immediate concern was to supply to the hospitals and health care workers in Gujarat as no one was producing at our scale. The relevant departments of the Uttar Pradesh government facilitated easy supply to the state,” says Patil.
“Throughout we remained unwavering on the price point- never retailing beyond Rs 70-80 per mask depending on the geography where we were selling.” These masks were later, after receiving the necessary permission from the government, exported to the United States, Canada, Singapore and the Middle East.
The technology, which has been developed in collaboration with the chemistry and chemical engineering departments of IIT, Kanpur, has also received funding from the Department of Science and Technology, Government of India. The setting up of E-Spin Nanotech Private Limited was funded by the Small Industries Development Bank of India.
Patil is happy over the part he and his team played in this crucial time. “We did the best we could. We were in the service of the nation. If you were to label us COVID heroes, I would say, yes, we were… in our own small way,” he says.