Singapore is now able to produce its own high-quality mask filters, at a rate such that everyone here can have two filters each week, should the Covid-19 pandemic worsen and global stocks once again run low.
The country will therefore have a sustainable supply at hand in the event that the crisis requires Singaporeans to switch to using higher-grade, surgical-quality masks, said Trade and Industry Minister Chan Chun Sing yesterday.
As these filters are designed to be used with reusable masks, Singapore will also be less reliant on the raw materials required for manufacturing traditional surgical masks, he noted.
Explaining the significance of this development, Mr Chan recounted how Singapore faced a "critical vulnerability" in its supply chain when it began producing surgical masks last year.
It could not get its hands on enough of a material called melt-blown polypropylene, which is used in the filtration layer of a standard surgical mask.
However, ST Engineering has now acquired the machines and know-how to produce such filters, which stand up well against similar products available globally, Mr Chan said.
"They are much lighter, much more breathable, and have much higher filtration capabilities - and yet, we are able to produce them at a price-competitive range," he added.
The minister was speaking to reporters after a closed-door visit to ST Engineering yesterday morning.
Singapore started drawing up plans to mass-produce surgical masks last year amid a shortage of face masks worldwide in the initial months of the pandemic, with the new filter-production machines arriving in the second half of the year.
At the same time, scientists had to come up with the right formulation for the new filters.
"At first, we thought that we might buy the machine and be able to do this," Mr Chan said. "But we quickly realised that we need to have deep knowledge of the science behind how the filter works in order for us to produce the right composition, to get to the final material that we want."
The new filter inserts, made of melt-blown polypropylene, are designed to be slipped into a reusable mask and can last on average three days.
They are made from polypropylene pellets, which are "quite easily available across the world".
In time to come, speciality chemical plants on Jurong Island could also produce this raw material, said Mr Chan.
He added that the new filter inserts will not be distributed to Singaporeans yet as the reusable masks that have been given out provide adequate protection for the country's current needs amid the pandemic.
Singapore has not reached the point where it has to give out the new filters, he said, adding: "We hope that we will never have to reach that point."
Instead, the country will build up its stockpile of these filters for future needs.
Melt-blown polypropylene can also be used in other products like surgical gowns, or even applied in other industries such as water filtration, he said.
The minister added that developing the domestic capability to produce these mask inserts was part of a "continuous process to strengthen our supply chain".
Singapore applies the same thought process to every product that is critical for the country's needs, he said.
"It's a never-ending job to keep diversifying, to keep examining the critical bottlenecks to solve the problem, so that we are not subject to the vagaries of supply chain disruptions."