While researchers the world over are searching for a cure or vaccine for COVID-19, nanotechnology specialists have found a way to use nanoparticles of copper in fabrics to kill the coronavirus on contact.

However, using copper as an anti-viral raw material is not at all new. The cleansing power of metals has been utilised to sterilise all manner of objects for thousands of years. It is one of the reasons why many medical instruments and tools were often made out of silver.

It is an understanding that has inspired the breakthrough that could help stop today’s pandemic.

Today, nanotechnology developments mean that only minute particles of metal need to be deployed before their virus-killing properties come into effect. By using copper nanoparticles each measuring less than 100 nm wide (0.0001 mm), the metal can be sprayed onto fabric, even face masks, providing an added defence against coronavirus.    

“We wondered how we could use our existing technology to turn something used in ancient times, like copper, into protection against COVID-19,” explains Professor Mangilal Agarwal, a director of the Integrated Nanosystems Development Institute at Indiana University who led the research. “Any virus sitting on the surface that comes in contact with copper will be killed because of the antiviral properties.”

Knowing this, the nanotech team began work developing a reusable face mask that was designed to trap airborne virus particles and de-activate them with copper nanoparticles contained within the fabric.

As the nanotechnology industry journal Nanowerk reports, “The technology – initially developed … to make composite materials cheaper, lighter and stronger using nanomaterials – could be used to coat household masks with a layer of fabric protection inlaid with copper nanoparticles that disable virus particles as they reach the surface. The general public would be able to wear a reusable mask that offers the same superior level of protection as masks worn by healthcare providers, such as N95 masks.”

“These masks have copper oxide applied at the nano level and would offer ultimate protection against virus risks like COVID-19,” Agarwal said. “Some cloth masks allow the small airborne particles to pass through, but with our technology, it would be close to 100% proof that you have the capability incorporated in the mask to deactivate the virus and improve filter performance.”

Not only does the nanotechnology mask function well, they are also practical for large-scale production.  As Agarwal notes, “To make any fabric into a mask or filter, we have to provide the nanostructure, and we can put that nanostructure on a roll-to-roll printing machine with the fibers at nanoscale. We are using electrospinning, using the electric field to spray the nanofibers onto the fabric.”

Consequently, the team have now placed a patent on the process and are looking to secure investors with whom to commercialise the nanoproduct, possibly with government procurement assistance via America’s Defense Protection Act.

Agarwal’s co-researcher and business partner, associate professor Hamid Dalir, also notes how the process can apply anti-viral and antibacterial copper nanoparticles to countless other products. “Our technology is good for masks and filters because we are not changing the manufacturing process,” he says. “We just get the rolls of the mask and filter, manufacture and enhance it with copper-coated fabric and then use it as it would be used conventionally.”

One potential alternative is using the nanoparticle fabric in High Efficiency Particulate Air (HEPA) filters found in heating and air conditioning units. This would allow the nanoparticles to deactivate viruses that are circulating through the ventilation systems found in offices, shopping centres, public buildings, and even hospitals and care homes.

Applications such as this truly enable nanotechnology to play a key role in keeping people healthy. While the current focus is on using the nanoparticle fabric in masks to combat the spread of coronavirus, the product’s effectiveness against a wide variety of pathogens makes it a preventative measure against thousands of infectious diseases anywhere a fabric filter can be applied.

As such, it seems that while nanoparticles may be small, they have a very big role to play in 21st century healthcare.

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