Engineers at the University of Missouri’s MU College of Engineering took pandemic-mandated public mask-wearing to another level. Going beyond filtering incoming and outgoing breath, the newly-developed a smart face mask can monitor the wearer’s health by analyzing coughs. The group published a study in ACS Nano that explains how the mask monitors coughs in real time while it also checks that the user is wearing the mask correctly.

Led by Zhen Yan, assistant professor in the MU College of Engineering, the team integrated soft bioelectronics in a conventional breathable face mask that doesn’t require external power. The electronic bits include a compact, battery-free radio frequency (RF) harmonic transponder. The transponder is made of miniature antennas and a passive frequency multiplier that consists of silver nanowires spray-painted with conductive polymers. According to the team, the wireless component is lightweight, stretchable, breathable, comfortable, and has the resilience and robustness for long-term, repeated use.

The smart mask’s capability as a diagnostic aid relies on observing cough frequency, which vary with respiratory disease and conditions, Yan said. “Taking chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD) as an example, the frequency of cough in the early morning is higher than that in the daytime and night,” Yan continued. “Our smart face mask can effectively monitor cough frequencies, which may assist physicians with knowing disease development and providing timely, customized interventions.”

A different bioelectronic sensor monitors check mask-wearing behavior in public places. The MU technology won’t remind you to wear a mask in public, but it can inform you when you’re not wearing a mask correctly.