National Science Foundation RAPID Grant Combines UVA’s Materials Science and Engineering and Medical Expertise

To stem the spread of COVID-19 in the United States and abroad, the National Science Foundation supports non-clinical-care research that can be put to immediate use. The agency has awarded Rapid Response Research funding to a University of Virginia research team to speed development of antimicrobial coatings that reduce peoples’ risk of catching the virus from high-touch surfaces.

John R. Scully, Charles Henderson Chaired Professor of materials science and engineering, Stephen J. McDonnell, assistant professor of materials science and engineering, and Daniel A. Engel, professor of microbiology, immunology and cancer biology in the UVA School of Medicine, spearhead the effort. UVA Engineering’s co-location with the School of Medicine offers a rare opportunity to translate research into public health measures and address complex medical problems facing our society.

“Surfaces like hand railings, door handles and counters can contribute to the spread of viruses,” Engel said. “The virus lays in wait to infect a healthy person, without any direct contact between two individuals.”

An effective antimicrobial coating can dramatically reduce the length of time a virus can survive on such surfaces. Scully, along with other faculty and students in UVA’s Center for Electrochemical Science and Engineering, has worked on copper alloys for many years. Anti-microbial properties involving electrochemical reactions on the surface of copper alloys is one area of the center’s research.

Electrochemical corrosion reactions not only produce anti-microbial copper ions, but also produce chemicals such as peroxides; biocide production is a natural consequence of the metal’s exposure to its environment. The trick is to control the corrosion process deliberately and precisely, to release copper ions from the alloy on the spot and in the same local environment where the virus lives.

“We have always felt that anti-microbial copper alloys could be a big benefit in public places and hospitals,” Scully said. In a June 2020 editorial published in CORROSION Journal, Scully argues for research to develop a copper alloy surface coating for frequently touched objects that is sufficiently corrosive to mitigate virus viability, but also retains its shine, can be cleaned, and is non-porous.

Whereas early research in the effectiveness of copper alloy surfaces with respect to COVID-19 is promising, further investigation of material properties, surface engineering and environments may uncover ways to boost antimicrobial properties.

“It’s all about what happens at the surface,” McDonnell said. McDonnell is an expert in surface chemistry and interface engineering of 2D materials. McDonnell’s long-term research also focuses on how to integrate super-thin materials into nanoelectronic device architectures in ways that improve energy efficiency, harvesting and conversion.

When the NSF issued the call for RAPID grant proposals, McDonnell and Scully saw an opportunity to apply their combined surface chemistry and corrosion expertise to combat COVID-19.

“It’s not often that we have an opportunity to work on something this urgent and to see results put to immediate use, to protect people and even save lives,” McDonnell said. “It feels good to be part of a community pulling together to prevent future pandemics.”

The search is on for copper alloy surface coatings that are sufficiently corrosive to kill the virus, while not being so corrosive that they tarnish. McDonnell’s, Scully’s and Engel’s collaborative research exploits copper’s intrinsic antimicrobial properties in the context of corrosion and oxidation, considering that the coating must be robust and effective in real-world environments.

“If we can successfully answer questions about the optimal composition and treatment of the alloy, we will enable the immediate selection of specific copper alloys for use on high-touch surfaces,” McDonnell said. “The big question is, how will we know that an alloy is effective against COVID-19?”

Secure labs within the UVA School of Medicine provide a means to safely expose Scully’s copper alloy coatings to viruses under various conditions that mimic real-world environments, including those where medical and household cleaners are used. 

McDonnell, Scully, and Engel are quick to add that their research is not limited to combating COVID-19. On the materials side, their research offers insight into the scientific principles that govern corrosion behavior and surface chemistry. In the fight against infectious diseases, they believe their findings will spur development of coatings customized for other viruses or suitably broad-spectrum to address a wide range of viruses, as well as bacteria.

“I’m optimistic that our research will result in practical solutions to this kind of viral spread,” Engel said.

In the midst of a global pandemic, UVA is mobilizing its resources and researchers to find a test and a vaccine for COVID-19, treat the ill, track the COVID-19 globally, and analyze the crisis through the lens of history, politics, economics, business, law and more. Learn more about UVA’s leadership in COVID-19 research: