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Scientists use plasma to kill coronavirus on any surface

Published Nov 12th, 2020 10:15PM EST
Image: Maridav/Adobe

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  • Scientists discovered that cold plasma could inactivate the coronavirus on surfaces in just 30 seconds, with exposures of three minutes destroying the pathogen.
  • Plasma is the fourth state of matter, in addition to solid, liquid, and gas, and forms naturally at the outer edges of the atmosphere.
  • Researchers created a cold plasma gun that requires just 12W of power, operates at near-room temperature, and is safe for humans.

When we cough, sneeze, talk, and sing, we expel invisible saliva particles from our mouths, which can contain all sorts of pathogens, including the novel coronavirus. The bigger droplets travel for a limited distance on a ballistic pattern, as gravity pulls them down to the surface. It’s the smaller microdroplets that are the most dangerous. As the water evaporates rapidly, they can travel longer distances and take longer to clear from the air. That’s why droplets and aerosol transmission are the main risks for coronavirus, with health experts insisting on the former as the main avenue of COVID-19 spread.

But the droplets that land on surfaces are a theoretical threat. The virus is resilient enough to survive up to 28 days on certain materials, depending on the room temperature and lighting. Touching potentially contaminated surfaces and then touching your face is risky, as it can lead to infections. That’s where hand sanitizer and frequent hand washing come into play. Experts like Dr. Anthony Fauci warn against wiping down groceries, a habit many people formed during the early months of the pandemic. Focus instead on washing your hands.

Other scientists, however, have not stopped trying to figure out ways to kill the coronavirus everywhere around us, and a team from California has found a way to employ plasma to inactivate the virus in just 30 seconds. A 3-minute exposure is enough to kill SARS-CoV-2 on any material.

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The virus can last between a day and 28 days on different surfaces, according to recent research. It might not always be infectious, but commonly used surfaces can contain traces of the virus that can lead to COVID-19.

Researchers from the University of California have created a solution that uses cold plasma to interfere with the coronavirus’s physical integrity and render it useless. That type o plasma refers to the fourth state of matter that joins solid, liquid, and gas. It’s not to be confused with blood plasma, the yellow tint liquid that makes up the blood together with the red blood cells. That plasma contains virus-killing antibodies.

The researchers published their work in Physics of Fluids, via Science Alert, where they explained the tech they used to create a tool that can potentially eradicate pathogens from surfaces.

Unlike ultraviolet light, which can kill the virus and harm humans, this cold plasma tool isn’t harmful to people — plasma forms in the upper atmosphere when electrons become separate from atoms. The mix of positively charged atoms and negatively charged electrons is unstable and more reactive, binding to nearby compounds.

The researchers created a 3D-printed plasma jet gun that’s fueled by a common gas called argon. The “gun” works with just 12W of power, sending speeding electrons through the gas and impacting its structure.

The result is a near-room-temperature stream of reactive particles that can be directed to surfaces. The cold plasma mix was tested against six contaminated surfaces, including cardboard, football leather, plastic, metal, and cotton cloth material from face masks. The virus was inactivated after 30 seconds, and the plasma destroyed the virus within three minutes.

Coronavirus illustration
The COVID-19 coronavirus, captured in illustrated form. Image source: Mauro Rodrigues/Adobe

The researchers found that material composition, roughness, and absorptivity impact the results. Virus on metal and plastic was inactivated in 30 seconds, but cardboard and leather needed a minute.

The virus has a simple structure (seen above). The genetic information (ARN) is protected inside a lipid capsule. There’s a corona (crown) of spike proteins that bind to the cells outside the capsule. Soap destroys the lipid capsule and renders the virus useless. The plasma gun might have a similar effect on the virus.

The researchers think that the reactive oxygen and nitrogen ions formed as the plasma interacts with the air will destroy the viral particles. A similar concept using helium plasma wasn’t as effective. The electrostatic forces that are formed on the outside of the capsule can break it.

The researchers think that cold plasma could also inactivate the aerosolized virus, although more research is required. It’s unclear what practical use the findings might have and how quickly plasma-based solutions can be used to neutralize the virus at home or in public places.

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.

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