You might imagine N95 masks as essentially a strainer intended to catch small particles, but as Minute Physics shows in this video, what these masks do is actually much more clever. A dense, strainer-like mask with tiny openings to block microscopic particles would be very tough to breathe through. Instead, N95 masks take advantage of one of the characteristics of tiny things: they’re very sticky. Thanks to van der Waals forces particles that touch a fiber will stick there.
By creating an array of fibers between the particle and a person’s mouth, N95 masks do an excellent job of catching both large particles and tiny ones. They have a harder time with medium-sized particles because airflow around the fibers helps these particles avoid them.
But, luckily, N95 masks have a solution for that problem, too. The fibers of the mask have an electric charge, which helps them attract particles of all sizes and capture them. Of course, as with all masks, they’ll work when worn as intended. (Video and image credit: Minute Physics)