Team pivots copper ink research for COVID-19 mitigation

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Materials science and disease research are two scientific fields that don’t often intersect, but when the COVID-19 pandemic hit, everything was on deck. This included scientists like Jun Cui, professor of materials science and engineering at Iowa State University and senior scientist at Ames National Laboratory, who stepped in when the Department of Energy asked its researchers what they could do to help mitigate the novel coronavirus.

Previously, Cui’s team worked on a copper ink designed specifically for printing copper nanowires that can be embedded into flexible electronic devices. Recognizing the inherent antimicrobial properties of copper, Cui sought to leverage its ink for a materials-based solution for disinfection.

The long history of copper

Copper has been shown to be effective in inactivating not only viruses but also bacteria, fungi and yeasts. Although the exact mechanism by which copper performs this function has not been confirmed, it is generally accepted that the antimicrobial effect is due to the released copper ions attacking the cell membrane and the RNA of the virus.

In fact, the antimicrobial effect of copper has long been recognized by humans, dating back to 2400 BC. water. Cooper continued to be common in various medical applications throughout history, until it was rendered obsolete with the advent of antibiotics.

New use

Cui came up with the idea of ​​turning copper-based ink into a spray that would work on plastic, glass, and stainless steel surfaces.

“I thought, it’s ink and I can dilute it with water or even ethanol and then spray it. Whatever the surface, I spray it once and cover it with a very thin layer of a copper nanowire,” he explains.

From there, Cui and his team created two versions of a sprayable disinfection ink, one containing copper nanowires and the other copper-zinc nanowires.

According to their study, published in RSC advances, both inks were better at deactivating SARS-CoV-2 compared to a regular copper disc. While it took 40 minutes for the disc to deactivate the virus, it only took 20 minutes for the two Cooper inks. The nanowires worked faster due to their larger surface area, Cui said.

In a comparison between the two ink coatings, the copper nanowires inactivated the virus faster than the copper-zinc nanowires for the first 10 minutes. However, copper-zinc nanowires had a more stable and long-lasting release of copper ions compared to copper nanowires, which makes the coating effective for longer.

Ultimately, the team concluded that copper-zinc nanowires were the best option for a sprayable solution that can be applied to high-touch hospital and/or public surfaces to reduce the risk of cross-transmission of the virus.

“This work is important not only because of the pandemic, but [because] these nanowires can protect against many different microbes,” Ciu concluded. “There is luck [the wires] can have a lasting impact on human society.

Lab products used in this materials science/COVID-19 research:

  • Plasma Quant MS Elite – Analytik Jena
  • Inspect F-50 SEM-FEI
  • 600E Series Electrochemical Analyzer/Workstation – CHI
  • Q600 SDT (TGA/DSC) – TA Instruments
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