The next generation of keypads, elevator buttons, and fuel pump handles could automatically destroy viruses, thanks to the research of UWindsor chemist John Trant.
Dr. Trant is looking into ways to coat frequently touched surfaces in a resin that dissolves viruses like the one that causes COVID-19. The material would be applied at the manufacturing stage, relieving storekeepers of the need to constantly disinfect surfaces touched by the public.
“Even if we’re keeping space between us but we’re touching the same surfaces, the virus will spread,” Trant said. “An anti-viral coating for surfaces that absorbs virus particles and destroys them could solve that problem.”
Trant’s research is being funded, in part, by the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada, which has set up a special $15 million fund in response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Trant has received a research grant of $50,000, the maximum available under the program.
The deadline to apply for a grant under the COVID program is June 1, but NSERC is funding worthy research projects as they are submitted to respond rapidly to the pandemic. Trant’s research is the first UWindsor project to be funded.
The anti-viral coating Trant is developing is one of four aims of his research project. He has already largely accomplished the first — developing a liquid hand sanitizer based on the formula recommended by the World Health Organization, but that is softer on the skin.
Trant has partnered with local companies — Wolfhead Distillery, cannabis company Peak Processing, and condiment bottler Inner Seasonings — to procure the ingredients and begin distributing the hand sanitizer locally. Peak’s chemist, Justin Binder, is a UWindsor grad. Trant said he is lucky that one of the post-doctoral fellows in his lab, Fred Shahbazi, is a cosmetics chemist and was able to come up with a formulation from available ingredients.
The next step in the hand sanitizer project is to develop a gel formulation. Most gelling agents are made in China, where production halted because of the pandemic at a time when demand skyrocketed.
“All these gelling agents are not available in North America right now,” Trant said. “We’re working with companies that use gelling agents for other applications to see if we can repurpose them for this.”
Gelling agents used in food sauces, cosmetics, and paints are usually used with water, but hand sanitizer is mostly alcohol, Trant explained.
If he is successful in using those agents in hand sanitizer, he would be solving a supply-chain issue.
“We think we have a made-in-Canada solution to this problem.”
Another phase of the project is to come up with a degreasing hand cleaner with anti-viral agents in it.
Hand sanitizers aren’t always effective for people who work outside of clean office settings, Trant explained: “The virus is protected in that layer of grease and grime when your hands get dirty and sweaty.”
The product he envisions would dissolve the oils and the virus particles at the same time.
Trant will test his products on the lung cells of rats infected with the coronavirus, which pose no infection threat to humans. For testing on the virus that affects humans, he will collaborate with a scientist at Laval University in Québec City whose lab is set up for such experimentation.
In addition to his other collaborators, Trant is working with BASF and Pelee Island Winery on parts of this research.
Trant said NSERC’s rapid funding of projects is important to his research and the fight against COVID-19.
“We aren’t just making hand sanitizers, we’re doing new science here,” he said. “This funding allows us to try new things and solve new problems that the off-the-shelf products can’t.”