Killing coronavirus with personal UV light device may be feasible

A handheld device emitting high-intensity UV radiation is now feasible


UV disinfection has been in use inside laboratories, hospitals and other places. A personal, portable device emitting high-intensity ultraviolet light to sanitise and disinfect areas is now feasible, thanks to researchers at Penn State, the University of Minnesota and two Japanese universities.

The UV radiation is in the 200 to 300 nanometer range and known to destroy the virus, making the virus incapable of reproducing and infecting. It deactivates bacteria, viruses and other germs by destroying nucleic acids and disrupting their DNA, leaving them unable to perform vital cellular functions.

Adoption of this efficient UV approach is much in demand during the current pandemic, but it requires UV radiation sources that emit sufficiently high doses of UV light. While devices with these high doses currently exist, the UV radiation source is typically an expensive mercury-containing gas discharge lamp, which requires high power, has a relatively short lifetime, and is bulky.

The solution is to develop high-performance, UV light emitting diodes, which would be far more portable, long-lasting, energy efficient and environmentally benign. While these LEDs exist, applying a current to them for light emission is complicated by the fact that the electrode material also has to be transparent to UV light.

"You have to ensure a sufficient UV light dose to kill all the viruses," said Roman Engel-Herbert, Penn State associate professor of materials science, physics and chemistry. "This means you need a high-performance UV LED emitting a high intensity of UV light, which is currently limited by the transparent electrode material being used."

While finding transparent electrode materials operating in the visible spectrum for displays, smartphones and LED lighting is a long-standing problem, the challenge is even more difficult for ultraviolet light.

"Right now, the current material solution commonly employed for visible light application is used despite it being too absorbing in the UV range. There is simply no good material choice for a UV-transparent conductor material that has been identified," said Joseph Roth, doctoral candidate in Materials Science and Engineering at Penn State.

Finding a new material with the right composition is the key to advancing UV LED performance. The Penn State team, in collaboration with materials theorists from the University of Minnesota, recognised early on that the solution for the problem might be found in a recently discovered new class of transparent conductors. Their findings have been published in the Nature Group publication Physics Communications.

When theoretical predictions pointed to the material strontium niobate, the researchers reached out to their Japanese collaborators to obtain strontium niobate films and immediately tested their performance as UV transparent conductors. While these films held the promise of the theoretical predictions, the researchers needed a deposition method to integrate these films in a scalable way.

"We immediately tried to grow these films using the standard film-growth technique widely adopted in industry, called sputtering," Roth said. "We were successful."

This is a critical step towards technology maturation which makes it possible to integrate this new material into UV LEDs at low cost and high quantity. "While our first motivation in developing UV transparent conductors was to build an economic solution for water disinfection, we now realise that this breakthrough discovery potentially offers a solution to deactivate Covid-19 in aerosols that might be distributed in HVAC systems of buildings," Roth explains.

Other areas of application for virus disinfection are densely and frequently populated areas, such as theaters, sports arenas and public transportation vehicles such as buses, subways and airplanes.