New coating removes 99.9% of all coronavirus on it in an hour — may soon find its ways to public spaces

The coronavirus pandemic has made it so that we all think twice before touching any surface in a public space. But new research at Virginia Tech aims to make it safe to touch stuff yet again.

A cross section of the coating seen under the electron microscope.
Image credits Saeed Behzadinasab et al., (2020), ACS Appl. Mater. Interfaces.

The team has developed a new coating that can be applied to common surfaces that see heavy use such as doorknobs, light switches, or shopping carts. This coating then quickly inactivates any viral SARS-CoV-2 particle that lands on it, preventing its spread.

Such a coating can be helpful both in public and in our homes, as the coronavirus has been shown to contaminate the living space of infected individuals.

Safe to touch

“Everybody is worried about touching objects that may have the coronavirus,” says William Ducker, a chemical engineering professor at Virginia Tech, who led the research. “It would help people to relax a little bit.”

“The idea is when the droplets land on a solid object, the virus within the droplets will be inactivated.”

The virus’ ability to live on various surfaces for long stretches of time creates opportunities for it to spread in society through contact with objects we touch every day.

Ducker has worked on developing coatings that kill bacteria in the past. He started working on this new, virus-killing coating in March, after he went on a walk with his wife who questioned whether she should sit on a bench during the pandemic. The idea behind the coating is to destroy or prevent any coronavirus particles it comes into contact with from infecting other people.

Lab tests of the coating have produced extremely good results, Ducker reports. When applied to glass or stainless steel, it removed 99.9% of viral particles in a single hour (compared to an uncoated sample). Shorter tests, meant to determine the coating’s efficiency for intervals of under one hour, are ongoing, he adds. Ducker is confident that the coating can inactivate the virus within minutes.

Lab tests also showed that this coating is robust and doesn’t peel off after slashing with a razor blade. It also remains efficient after repeated exposures to the virus, disinfectant, or after being submerged in water for a week. Such mechanical properties are important if the coating is to be widely used on surfaces in public spaces.

“It was an interesting experience,” Ducker said. “Almost the entire campus was shut down, and we were like ghosts wandering the empty halls of Goodwin Hall.”

“But it was very exciting to have such a clear goal. I know that it was a difficult time for many people who were bored, unhappy, or scared. We were just focused on making a coating.”

The coating, by itself, won’t end the pandemic. No matter how effective it is, it can’t substitute for masks, hand washing, or maintaining physical distance. But it could help put us more at ease in public spaces, Ducker says, being “both practical and reducing fear.”

We’re still quite a way away from seeing this coating in our cities. Ducker and his team are now busy searching for funding to get it mass-produced.

The paper “A Surface Coating that Rapidly Inactivates SARS-CoV-2” has been published in the journal ACS Applied Materials & Interfaces.

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