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Materials Science Revolution in the Fight against COVID — Copper Continues to Lead the Charge

Copper is arguably one of the key mainstay metals and building blocks of modern society.  However, in recent years — and most certainly over the past few months as the coronavirus pandemic has spanned the globe, its antimicrobial properties — known and appreciated already by the Ancients — have re-entered the spotlight.

Reports of novel ideas on how to harness copper’s properties in the fight against COVID and future pandemics, ranging from the development of copper-infused face masks to copper-alloyed cell phone cases, are a testament not only to the metal’s properties, but the promise of the ongoing materials science revolution, which is yielding research breakthroughs at neck-breaking speeds. 

While a recently-introduced Assembly bill in New York State seeks to reduce the spread of infection by requiring all new construction projects receiving state funding to use copper alloy touch surfaces, including door handles, bathroom fixtures, bed rails and handrails going forward, copper’s antimicrobial potential is already finding practical application in Hong Kong.  

As we reported, Hong Kong’s Innovation and Technology Bureau (ITB) announced in May that the government was going to distribute free reusable copper-containing masks “capable of immobilising [sic] bacteria, common viruses and other harmful substances” to all its citizens.

Meanwhile, Australia’s Northern Territory also made headlines, as its Department of Trade, Business and Innovation became “the first organisation to deploy antimicrobial ACTIVAT3D copper throughout their building to help fight the spread of COVID-19.”

Developed by a Darwin-based company, ACTIVAT3D copper has been tested by a clinical trial speciality lab accredited by the Australian National Association of Testing Authorities (NATA), and was shown to kill off 96 percent of the virus in two hours and 99.2 percent of the virus in five hours. 

According to news reports, the company has developed a “process to coat stainless-steel door touch plates and handles in under 5 minutes,” which was then applied throughout the NT Department of Trade, Business and Innovation building.

While this technology and its associated test results have reportedly sparked global interest as governments and private companies look for proactive ways to protect their communities, the clothing industry is not sitting idly by. 

According to British news sources, a hi-tech clothing firm claims to have created the world’s first ‘disease-proof’ jacket — a “super garment” designed to kill bugs and viruses like the novel coronavirus by also harnessing copper’s antimicrobial properties.  In what may — at least for now — limit its marketability, the futuristic-looking jacket made from 11km of copper has the hefty price tag of $895. 

So while it may be unlikely that many of us will be wearing “full metal jackets” – as the super garment has been dubbed – anytime soon, there is a good chance that we will be harnessing copper’s properties in fabrics and garments.   Already, companies have developed copper-infused T-shirts to double as wound dressings, and are now making hospital gowns and bedding to battle hospital-acquired infections, and more and more companies are beginning to offer copper-infused face masks.  

Speaking of face masks — here’s another testament to materials science:

Like them or not, they have become a staple in our daily lives, but you’ve probably noticed that effective communication is hard when half your face is hidden — it’s hard to show emotions.  For some, like children, the elderly and the hearing impaired, this issue is even greater, particularly in the caregiving context, where being shown empathy is a big contributing factor to a patient’s wellbeing, especially when loved ones are not allowed to visit in person.  

Initially looking for a way to make the contact between caregivers and patients less impersonal, Swiss researchers have now developed a technology to create a completely transparent biomass-based surgical mask.   Product launch could take place as early as the spring of 2021.  

Who knows, maybe the next step will be copper-infused transparent surgical masks. With the materials science revolution going strong, the next breakthrough may be just around the corner.