Houston, We Have Hope

UH Physicist’s Nanotechnology Could Stop Coronavirus in its Tracks

There’s more than just water-repelling mask coating in the works.

By Emma Schkloven April 8, 2020

Integricote's hydrophobic coating could reduce the spread of the novel coronavirus, which scientists believe is transmitted through moisture.

Seamus Curran didn’t have a pandemic in mind when he first developed his water-repelling coating back in 2011. But when the University of Houston physics professor and CEO of nano-coatings company Integricote watched COVID-19 wreak havoc across the globe, he realized he had a potential solution for slowing down its spread sitting in UH’s Technology Bridge. Even before the product is available to consumers, Curran’s already starting to think bigger.

"History is littered with examples of technology that was examined for one application but found a way into another field altogether,” Curran says. “Folks take new tech and find so many interesting ways to use them because of their natural curiosity."

With more than 70 patents—20 of them issued in the U.S.—and a slew of awards to his name, Curran is not the kind of scientist to sit back and ponder the “what ifs” of nature. In fact, he’s something of a rockstar in the world of nanotechnology research and was recently named a National Academy of Inventors fellow. So, it’s really no surprise that Curran tested his water repellant on just about every fibrous material he could get his hands on. This thoroughness has saved the physicist months and even years of research, something crucial in the battle against COVID-19 as the U.S. reaches a critical shortage of N95 surgical masks.

You may be wondering how exactly Curran’s technology can help in the fight against the global pandemic. After all it’s not the highly-anticipated but nowhere-near-ready vaccine so many officials and elected leaders are looking toward. Scientists’ overall theory is that the novel coronavirus travels through the air in particles of mucus or saliva expelled during, say, a cough, sneeze, or even normal conversation. Yes, this sounds terrifying—we all know a talk-spitter—but Curran says this is exactly what makes his waterproofing technology useful.

“The virus which is contained in that liquid flies off the surface with the coating,” he says. “If they don’t stick, the virus doesn’t stick. If the virus doesn’t stick, it doesn’t sit there to be breathed in by you.”

This means Integricote’s coating wouldn’t just help surgical and homemade masks better protect against the virus’ transmission. It can also theoretically be used on bed linens, mattresses, scrubs, and masks, which could help cut down the spread of coronavirus from patients to emergency personnel.

Curran says his facility has the ability to manufacture about 400 gallons of coating, which can cover about 12,000 masks, a day. Once he receives confirmation that the product complies with FDA standards (he actually doesn’t need FDA approval), he plans to make the coating’s formula available to other manufacturers and retail stores.

However, the hydrophobic fabric coating is only Phase 1 of Curran’s plans to cut off COVID-19’s legs.

The physicist is also actively developing a non-toxic, environmentally friendly solution that can be applied to the surface of everyday objects that will kill the virus on contact. And he’s not just talking medical equipment and hospital workstations; he’s thinking ventilation systems in apartment complexes and entire modes of transportation, like ships and airplanes.

“We’re going after that virus so that every time somebody coughs, it lands on a surface, and that surface is toxic to the virus but OK for us,” Curran says. “I’m getting aggressive with this thing.”

While this might seem like a jump from water-proofing fabric, Integricote has actually been selling its coating in sealers and stains for use in construction projects across the Houston metropolitan area for more than four years. These sealers already ward off mold, mildew, and, in some cases, termites, so the building blocks are already there to make it toxic to coronavirus, Curran says.

Integricote is currently awaiting internal tests results to see how close its current formula of the surface coating is to being ready for independent testing, the next phase FDA approval process. Even if it works as well as he believes it will, Curran stresses his surface barrier and fabric coating would not replace the need for a vaccine. Still, he hopes this nanotechnology slows down the spread of COVID-19 and gives Houstonians and the rest of the world some-much needed hope.

“I am a nanotechnologist working on surface coatings,” he says. “There are many like me who are trying to do the same, I am absolutely sure of it, and we will all do our bit to get time for our colleagues, so they can make the real big discoveries.”

To learn more about Curran’s coronavirus fighting projects, visit curranbiotech.com.

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