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Face masks with electric fields might be able to kill coronavirus on contact

Published May 25th, 2020 4:05PM EDT
Coronavirus Face Masks
Image: Claudia Greco/AGF/Shutterstock
  • Coronavirus face masks and other personal protective equipment (PPE) can’t destroy the new pathogen on contact, but researchers are looking at ways for fabrics to neutralize its infectivity.
  • Researchers who have used electric fields to create electroceutical bandages that can prevent infections while treating wounds think the same technique could be used against the novel coronavirus.
  • The researchers were able to demonstrate the effectiveness of such fabrics against a known coronavirus in a lab, suggesting that future PPE products could benefit from the technology.

The CDC says that you’re less likely to pick up the novel coronavirus from surfaces, but there’s plenty of evidence that shows the life-threatening pathogen travel easily through the air and can stick on surfaces for hours or days. We’ve seen plenty of scary videos that show how easily the virus spreads from human to human, proving how vital social distancing is. The same clips indicate that the use of PPE, such as face masks, is key during the pandemic. But you have to use the mask correctly and avoid touching it. The virus can survive for days on the outside and inside of face masks as well. You should avoid touching your face while you’re outdoors.

Scientists are already studying technologies that might help them apply an outer layer to face masks that would kill the coronavirus on contact. Now, some researchers think they could apply an electric current to the exterior of a face mask to destroy the virus’s ability to infect cells.

Electroceuticals are a novel form of medical devices, a combination of the words “electrostatic” and “pharmaceuticals,” Forbes explains. Such technology is already being used to dress wounds. A polyester product made by Vomaris has little metal dots made of zinc and silver printed on it. The alternating pattern makes microcell batteries, which generate an electric field when exposed to moisture. This electric field contraption can help heal wounds by preventing infection. The following video shows the bandage with electric powers in action:

Chandan Sen, from the Indiana Center for Regenerative Medicine and Engineering, worked on this type of technology before, and is currently pioneering a similar idea for the novel coronavirus. Sen and his team penned a paper that explains how PPE made from electroceutical fabric might kill the novel coronavirus on contact.

The team used a polyester fabric without the microcell batteries on the surface as a control, and then exposed both surfaces to water solution that contained cells with a different respiratory coronavirus at room temperature. The testing did not include the actual SARS-CoV-2 virus that causes COVID-19.

They found that a single minute of contact was enough to significantly reduce the electrokinetic property of the viral particles. Viruses depend on electrostatic forces to attach themselves to cells. So these electroceutical materials use electric fields against the particles. The researchers monitored the recovered cells and noticed they were as healthy as non-infected cells. The virus had lost its ability to infect the cells following the exposure to the electric field. Alternatively, the cells in the control fabric were infected.

Further study of electroceutical materials could lead to new PPE technologies that could be effective against the novel coronavirus as well as other pathogens. Whether the face masks of the near future can kill viruses and bacteria on contact or not, remember to keep your hands away from your face and wear a mask.

Chris Smith Senior Writer

Chris Smith has been covering consumer electronics ever since the iPhone revolutionized the industry in 2008. When he’s not writing about the most recent tech news for BGR, he brings his entertainment expertise to Marvel’s Cinematic Universe and other blockbuster franchises.

Outside of work, you’ll catch him streaming almost every new movie and TV show release as soon as it's available.