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Coronavirus

Japan industrial filters make particle-blocking masks beyond N95

Yamashin-Filter adapts material for construction machinery to fight coronavirus

Yamashin-Filter supplies filter parts for use in construction machinery, including Komatsu’s hydraulic shovels. It has now developed a replaceable insert for face masks and also plans to manufacture its own mask.

TOKYO -- Yamashin-Filter, a Japanese manufacturer of filters for construction machinery, has developed a high performance replaceable face mask insert boasting extended particle-blocking performance and plans to ramp up mass production of its own mask next month as demand for protection soars with the spread of the novel coronavirus.

Yamashin has adapted its manufacturing technology for filters in construction machinery to applications in clothing and farming, but now is aiming to expand its consumer-oriented business amid a critical shortage of face masks.

The company is already selling its Nano Filter, which it says can efficiently trap airborne particles, as a replacement insert for face masks. The product takes advantage of technology used in the construction-machinery hydraulic filters it sells to Japan's major construction machinery makers, including Komatsu and Hitachi Construction Machinery. The technology sprays melted resin on to fibers to create a filter mesh with hard-to-penetrate gaps measured at nanometer levels.

Yamashin also plans to use the same technology to manufacture an actual face mask. A mask using the company's filter blocks out 98% of particles measuring 0.3 micrometer, exceeding the percentage figure for N95 masks used by health care workers. The figure drops only to 90% even after 24 hours of use -- exceeding N95 masks by over 10 percentage points -- and makes for longer-lasting performance. Cheaper surgical masks, meanwhile, block just 43% of particles, with the figure dropping to 15% after 24 hours.

Widely available disposable face masks block particles and viruses using static electricity, but performance declines due to the effect of humidity in human breath as well as the passage of time. By contrast, Yamashin's filter uses fibers with a thickness less than one-tenth that of average chemical ones. It is formed in a three-dimensional structure to trap particles and can maintain a high capture ratio for an extended period of time as it does not rely on static, according to the company.

While the diameter of fibers used in typical face masks is about 3 micrometers, those in Yamashin's measure between 0.2 micrometer to 0.8 micrometer. The diameter of one novel coronavirus is 0.1 micrometer, but the mesh formed by the filter has sufficiently fine gaps to block particles bearing the virus, the company said.

About 80% of face masks available in Japan are imports, but Yamashin manufacturers domestically to ensure stable supply to the local market. It has already started production of the replacement insert at its plant in the southwestern Japanese prefecture of Saga. Mass production of its full mask will start in May, with a plan to increase output to 5 million per month by the end of July.

Yamashin plans to make about 360,000 replaceable inserts per month and aims to spend about 50 million yen ($463,000) on production lines and other equipment. The inserts are already on sale at the Yuzawaya chain of craft supply stores operated by Tokyo's Yuzawaya Shoji. Yamashin plans to supply the inserts to face mask makers while selling its own masks through major drugstore chains.

Construction machinery makers represent some 90% of Yamashin's filter sales. Yamashin's revenue suffered after Japanese construction machinery manufacturers lost share to local rivals in a price-cutting competition in the Chinese market, while the company's domestic product shipments remain low. It forecasts revenue to total 12.7 billion yen for the year ended March, down 8%from a year earlier.

For the current year ending March 2021, Yamashin aims to bolster sales of construction machinery filters targeting Chinese construction machinery makers and develop use of its nano filters for purposes other than face masks. The company's filters, for example, are already used in linings for coats manufactured by a men's clothing manufacturer for their insulating quality. Yamashin is also seeking ways to use the filters in home electronics products and automobiles for their sound-absorbing quality.

Yamashin also expects the creation of a mask division will help boost annual sales of its Nano Filter to several billion yen and aims to roll out other consumer-oriented products as well.

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