Developing Materials to Incorporate into Coatings to Kill the COVID-19 Virus on Surfaces for Public Spaces

Laura Lewis

Arm rails, door handles, seats—these are all surfaces in public spaces that can spread viruses with so many people touching them as part of their daily life. Distinguished University and Cabot Professor Laura Lewis, chemical engineering, jointly appointed in mechanical and industrial engineering, was awarded a National Science Foundation RAPID grant to mitigate this problem. Her research project, titled, “Lattice-Defective Copper Oxides as a Biocidal Tool for COVID-19 and Beyond,” addresses a need for new types of surface treatments that exhibit antipathogenic “contact-kill” capabilities to protect public health and welfare.

Cuprous oxide is reported as a highly effective antimicrobial compound. While the origin of its antimicrobial property remains unknown, it is hypothesized to be a consequence of atomic-level copper vacancies in its crystal lattice that provide highly charged atomic environments. These locally energetic regions in the lattice are thought to disrupt and destroy cell membranes and/or the protein shell of viruses. Lewis’ interdisciplinary research will quantify connections between the cuprous oxide lattice condition and its biocidal activity to permit rational engineering of this abundant, inexpensive, and easily handled material for incorporation into coatings for public spaces.

Lewis notes that one potential consequence of current widespread hand sanitizer usage is antibiotic-resistant bacteria; however, she is hopeful that these studies will quickly lead to materials design recipes (strategies, methods, prescriptions, rules) to develop solutions for public spaces.

Abstract Source: NSF

TECHNICAL DETAILS: Correlations between the cuprous oxide lattice defect condition and its antipathogenic response to representative organisms are quantified through structural and electronic probes, including magnetometry and photoabsorption. Lattice-defective cuprous oxide, synthesized by high-energy mechanical processing, is incorporated into coatings and subjected to biological assays to quantify any reduction in viable bacteria and viruses after prolonged exposure. Students and junior researchers involved in this project work at the typically unfrequented intersection of inorganic materials science and biology. These tests, which are designed to simulate actual conditions where a pathogen might survive on a given surface, provide enabling knowledge to engineer cuprous oxide, and perhaps other oxide materials, for antipathogenic purposes to address the current COVID-19 pandemic and to proactively confront future health challenges.

This award is being funded by the CARES Act supplemental funds allocated to MPS.

This award reflects NSF’s statutory mission and has been deemed worthy of support through evaluation using the Foundation’s intellectual merit and broader impacts review criteria.

Related Faculty: Laura H. Lewis

Related Departments:Chemical Engineering, Mechanical & Industrial Engineering