Masks are currently part of our daily lives, but these facial coverings aren’t stopping coronavirus particles from passing through, say researchers at IUPUI. The viral particles are too small for masks to capture, but the team says it has developed a solution that deploys the power of copper—at a microscopic scale—to not only trap the virus particles, but also kill them. Applicable for both masks and air filters in high demand for hospitals and schools, the technology has given birth to a startup that the team says could soon ink commercial agreements.
“Viral particles are very, very small; a normal face mask doesn’t prevent those particles [from passing through], and also doesn’t deactivate the virus. If the viral particles come in contact with the fabric or top layer of the mask, they stay there and also cause cross contamination,” says Dr. Mangilal Agarwal, director of IUPUI’s Integrated Nanosystems Development Institute (INDI).
Agarwal and IUPUI Mechanical and Energy Engineering Associate Professor Dr. Hamid Dalir say they’ve created a technology that uses the natural antiviral properties of copper to make masks and air filters able to block and kill the coronavirus specifically.
“It’s like spray paint, in layman’s terms,” says Agarwal. “But in this case, we’re using an electric field to assist ‘spraying’ the coating, which provides this nano 3-D texture [on the mask] to trap the virus. We’re spraying a layer of copper nanoparticles. As soon as [the copper nanoparticles] capture the virus, the virus is going to be deactivated because of copper, so it filters and deactivates the viral particle.”
The team has also developed the technology so it can be applied using a roll-to-roll system. They say, as a result, mask manufacturers won’t need to change their production process and can use the same machines that are currently used to mass produce masks.
“The technology is designed so we can have large-scale production; it’s not a complex process to add this [copper] layer,” says Dalir. “However, there’s a gap between what industry expects from universities and what universities are doing. We do fundamental research and come up with a proof of concept, but it’s very difficult for large companies to adopt the technology. So we created a startup to basically fill that gap between university research and what industry is ready to adopt.”
The young company, called Multiscale Integrated Technology (MIT) Solutions, recently earned a $40,000 pre-seed investment from Indianapolis-based Elevate Ventures at its Elevate Nexus Statewide Pitch Competition. The startup was founded in 2019 to commercialize a technology originally developed to use layers of nanofibers for reinforcing composite materials, but MIT Solutions pivoted during the pandemic to uncover the COVID-19 application for the same technology.
“But the issue we had is, how can we test if it really works, and how can we test it with the real coronavirus? We need to see if it’s effective on the real virus,” says Dalir. “The advantage that we have is that we’re connected to INDI, and through [that institute], we had access to the IU School of Medicine (IUSM) and a lot of researchers. Then, we were able to start testing with the real virus to come up with that proof of concept.”
IUSM researchers are now testing the team’s technology to determine if it’s trapping and deactivating coronavirus particles specifically—and not just for masks. MIT Solutions says the copper nanoparticle technology is also applicable for making air filters that trap and kill the coronavirus.
“There’s not much difference between masks and filters; it’s roll-to-roll for both. [Manufacturers] could buy this roll and use it to make masks or make [air] filters,” says Dalir. “We’re working closely with Carrier, one of biggest filter manufacturers in the world. If we can enhance Carrier’s filters and show [our technology] works, then Carrier is going to be super interested. Industry wants something that’s [market-ready]; MIT Solutions was initiated to basically fulfill that goal.”
The team says Carrier is interested in using MIT Solutions’ technology, due to its coronavirus specificity; Dalir says Carrier’s OptiClean machine is designed to roll into a room to filter the air and help provide negative air pressure and is being used in hospitals and schools.
“We want Indiana and the nation to be fully open and functional. We feel the pain. I want my kids to go back to school. If we can help make it safer, why not? I would be very happy to see students using [our filters] in air filtration systems,” says Agarwal. “This is the most rewarding thing. You start with a technology and take it all the way from a concept to a product that can actually provide a better environment and life for the whole country.”
Dalir says being connected to INDI has opened the door to testing the technology’s ability to trap and kill the coronavirus, which is an important hurdle to clear for potential commercial partnerships.
Dalir says the technology can be embedded in masks or air filters.