July 20, 2020
Copper, a metal commonly used throughout history for its antibacterial properties, is being utilized by researchers at IUPUI’s Integrated Nanosystems Development Institute to solve a problem very relevant today: making reusable face masks safer and more comfortable for daily use.
“We wondered how we could use our existing technology to turn something used in ancient times, like copper, into protection against COVID-19,” said Mangilal Agarwal, director of the Integrated Nanosystems Development Institute and professor of mechanical and energy engineering. “Any virus sitting on the surface that comes in contact with copper will be killed because of the antiviral properties.”
Agarwal and Hamid Dalir, associate professor, are applying a patented technology developed at IUPUI to manufacture reusable face masks using copper, a metal often used in the production of high-touch objects like doorknobs and handles. Their goal is to improve filter performance by trapping and disabling airborne virus particles.
“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.”
The technology – initially developed at IUPUI 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.
“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,” Agarwal said. “We are using electrospinning, using the electric field to spray the nanofibers onto the fabric.”
Agarwal and Dalir disclosed their technology to the Indiana University Innovation and Commercialization Office, and are looking to commercialize it through their startup. They plan to work with local companies manufacturing COVID-19 supplies under the Defense Protection Act.
Beyond face masks, the technology can be applied to other methods for fighting COVID-19, such as HEPA filters found in HVAC systems. Without good filters, Agarwal said, airborne virus particles could circulate between indoor areas. By applying the copper material to the filters, there could be virus free air circulation in buildings and hospitals.
“Our technology is good for masks and filters because we are not changing the manufacturing process,” Dalir said. “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.”
Their company, Multiscale Integrated Technology Solutions, was recently selected as one of five Hoosier startup winners of the Elevate Nexus Statewide Pitch Competition, a program designed to support Indiana startups.
“Elevate Nexus is being funded by a grant from the U.S. Economic Development Administration and the 21st Century Research and Technology Fund to help startups that have shown potential for commercialization to get connected with entrepreneurs to build on existing operational strategies," Dalir said. "What we're trying to do is raise the existing entrepreneurship support vehicles as well as attract investment in our startup at an earlier level so that we can have the opportunity to further grow and cultivate new investors as we de-risk our venture.”
The commercialization of their technology has the potential to greatly impact lives here in Indiana and around the world – providing a safe solution against the spread of COVID-19.