Federal grant helps USF researchers develop technology to stop virus spread

Hillsborough County

TAMPA, Fla. (WFLA) – A team of researchers at the University of South Florida received a federal grant to go toward groundbreaking technology that could stop the spread of COVID-19.

The National Science Foundation has awarded an interdisciplinary team of scientists from the University of South Florida a rapid response grant. This grant will advance their efforts to establish a technology that can rapidly sterilize and electrostatically recharge N95 respiratory masks to restore their original filtration efficiency.

Dr. Ying Zhong, assistant professor of mechanical engineering, and Libin Ye, assistant professor of biological sciences, received approximately $167,000 to further develop this sterilization technology. It is designed to fight coronavirus by using corona discharge, low-temperature atmospheric pressure plasma and works by simultaneously deactivating pathogens on a mask and restoring its electrostatic charges.

Dr. Zhong told 8 On Your Side she began researches coronavirus years ago. When the pandemic hit the United States and she saw the lack of PPE, she wanted to step in to help.

“I started to think is it possible that this technology could also kill the bacteria or the virus,” Zhong said. “I did find out that there is basic research that says it can be effective, so I reached out to doctors here and said yeah, this really works.”

The researchers also noticed that people weren’t properly sterilizing and using their masks. USF researchers caution against this as most sterilization methods, such as steaming or applying disinfectants, can dramatically decrease a mask’s effectiveness, which is essential to protect front line workers.

“I talked to too many people and I realized many are reusing masks right now,” she said. ” They just put them out there, or put them in sunlight or even steam it, but that’s not the right way to do it.”

Zhong and Ye are also developing handheld surface screening devices to sterilize homes, hospitals and other public areas, such as restaurants, schools and public transportation.

“We hope portable corona screening devices can provide a safe solution for effective sterilization, instead of repeatedly utilizing large amounts of disinfectants,” Zhong said. “Developing an efficient, sustainable and affordable solution for everyone to have access to and to protect more people is what we, researchers, feel responsible to do in a pandemic like this.”

The team has proven the technology can kill 10,000 E. coli bacteria in less than a minute with a single-needle model, with the potential, they say, to sterilize even more pathogens in less time if more needles or wires are built into the device. USF is collaborating with a lab at the University of California San Diego to validate the technology’s effectiveness against SARS-CoV-2.

“It is exciting to see corona can kill coronavirus,” Ye said. “The application of this technology will transform the way we disinfect for public health purposes in a more convenient and effective manner.”

The researchers have filed for a provisional patent on the technology and are working toward FDA approval. They’re currently collaborating with a medical device design company to turn their prototypes into products that cost less than $50. Zhong and Ye hope to soon make them available to hospitals and the general public. With low power output and no heat emission, the corona treatment is safe to operate.

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