5 Jun 2020

Wool face masks proving a hit

From Afternoons with Jesse Mulligan, 1:45 pm on 5 June 2020

A Kiwi wool manufacturer helping New Zealanders and Australians in the fight against Covid-19 has aspirations for its products to have a global and interplanetary impact.

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Photo: Lanaco

Lanaco has been developing and manufacturing woollen face masks and filter elements for several years.

Chief executive Nick Davenport told RNZ Afternoons his company has produced close to four million products in the last couple of years and that production is accelerating.

For the last five years the company has also been making wool filters for industrial respirators for companies such as 3M.

When the Lanaco started testing what wool can do for respiratory filters 10 years ago, a global pandemic such as Covid-19 was not what they had in mind.

“When we built our business plan, our model for respiratory filters, it was focused on air quality… in living and working environments around the world where people haven’t necessarily got air quality as good as what we have and that, according to the World Health Organisation, is the world’s largest health problem is environmental air quality, which accounts for millions and millions of deaths annually pre-Covid, so the Covid-19 situation right now is relatively minor compared to the underlying health problems of respiratory air,” Davenport said.

Recently the company has been particularly popular in this part of the world, helping people through the Australian bushfires and Covid-19.

“They (Australians) had some difficult situations to face, just as New Zealand has,” he said.

Davenport said his products have been well sought after thanks to its natural qualities as opposed to synthetic alternatives.

“It’s (wool) a natural protein, it’s friendly and people have been using it for centuries.

“The great thing about it of course is wool is what the Australian and New Zealand economies were originally founded on and now we hope we’ve found a use where it that can provide better health for the whole planet, not just New Zealanders and Australians.”

The size and thickness of the masks and filters vary from product to product, he says.

Mask thickness can range from 3mm-6mm, while the filters used in canisters for industrial products can be up to 15mm thick.

To develop such products, Davenport said it required years of testing to discover what breed of sheep produced the best quality wool for respiratory filters.

“What we did is we commenced a sheep and breeding program to establish the base data so to be in this field you need to be strongly scientific and you have to have very good data to understand the performance of your product. We were fortunate enough to be able to start a breeding program focused on the development on the best possible fibre for respiratory filters.

“We have specifically bred an animal in New Zealand for this program, it’s called the Astino and that program has been running for five years now and that’s the cornerstone of our technology.”

That level of detail and research even has the likes of NASA on Lanaco’s supply list.

“[We] have been selected as the official supplier is for critical air supply filtration on man’s next mission to the moon and Mars, so this is a program that’s been underway for a number of years with NASA, it’s called the Artemis program and our materials will be going up into the Orion capsule for the next manned mission to the moon.”

So not even the sky can limit this Kiwi company.

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