NSF funds UWM research on repelling, deactivating COVID-19 virus on surfaces

The National Science Foundation is funding University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee researchers to design and test spray coatings that could be applied to surfaces to both repel and deactivate virus-laden droplets.

On April 22, the four-person team received a $198,326 NSF COVID-19 RAPID grant, which funds research that has the potential to quickly address the spread of novel coronavirus (COVID-19). The grant provides funding over one year.

The research could help medical facilities assess coating technologies that best combat a broad range of airborne pathogens, says Konstantin Sobolev, principal investigator and professor of civil and environmental engineering in UWM’s College of Engineering & Applied Science.

In addition to Sobolev, the research team includes co-principal investigators Nikolai Kouklin, professor, electrical engineering, Michael Nosonovsky, associate professor, mechanical engineering, and David Frick, professor, chemistry/biochemical.

The World Health Organization considers the main route of COVID-19 transmission to be through contact with surfaces that have been contaminated with small respiratory droplets that are released when COVID-19 patients cough or exhale. The virus that causes COVID-19 (SARS-CoV-2) retains infectivity on stainless steel surfaces for up to 72 hours, and the current absence of a vaccine and effective antiviral drugs makes it critical to explore novel approaches to breaking the chain of viral transmission.

Specifically, Sobolev says, the research team will simultaneously perform lab and field testing on the pathogen-inhibiting efficacy of superhydrophobic and photocatalytic antimicrobial (SPA) coatings, a group of sprayable materials which, through their combined modes of action, can create self-disinfecting properties to a variety of surfaces, including metals, concrete, ceramics,

glass, and wood, to help prevent the transmission of viral, bacterial, and other pathogens for a period of time ranging from several months to several years.

An SPA coating that repels and deactivates viral pathogens also would facilitate cleaning procedures.

The project also supports graduate and undergraduate training in the areas of surface coating technology and catalysis, and engages local hospitals and university medical research facilities in assessing the efficacy of the coating technologies for combating a broad range of airborne pathogens.

Beyond the immediate impact on the current pandemic, the resulting technology will improve our nation’s preparedness for future waves of COVID-19 and other airborne pathogens, Sobolev says. In addition, data obtained during the current pandemic will provide a fast track to scale-up manufacturing and widespread deployment of the anti-viral coatings.