We know that the COVID-19 virus spreads easily person-to-person, but another concern is contact with various surfaces that may carry the virus. According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention website, lab studies have determined that “it may be possible that a person can get COVID-19 by touching a surface or object that has the virus on it and then touching their own mouth, nose, or possibly their eyes.” This would include packaging on items purchased at a grocery or drug store.
The COVID-19 virus structure includes a protective coating that makes it difficult to kill. However, researchers in Nova Scotia, Canada are looking at ways to embed virus-killing compounds into plastics. They are using nano-metallic compounds that disrupt the lipid membrane, or coating of the virus, causing it to dehydrate and die. (Ref. https://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/new-brunswick/plastic-packaging-could-kill-virus-1.5644012)
The challenge in this research is learning how to embed those virus-killing compounds into plastics. Most plastic packaging is created by thermosetting or blown films. Heat provides energy for chemical reactions that create cross-linking between polymer chains, curing the plastic. The precursor materials for thermosetting or plastic wrap material are made with compound mixers and extruders.
Extruders for packaging production
Extruders utilize a set of screws in various shapes and heating zones that change the chemistry of polymers to make them functional. The process starts with powdered materials or solvents, which are transported, heated and dispersed to create a new chemical material, which can be made into resin pellets for thermosetting or flexible packaging sheets, strands for 3D printing or even flaked and dried material for pharmaceutical use.
Dr. Beth Mason, CEO of the Verschuren Centre at Cape Breton University, who heads up the research team, cites several properties in both the nanoparticles and plastics that come into play. The final plastic material must be clear, cannot alter the packaged material, and cannot be noxious. The added material also needs to be cost-effective. And, as stated, the process must maintain the virus-killing properties of the embedded nanoparticles.
Our Thermo Scientific Process 11 Twin Screw Extruder was the ideal tool for this research development. The instrument sits on the lab benchtop, uses small quantities of material, and is easy to clean and reconfigure in a series of experiments. Also important is the fact that the extruder ensures the uniform distribution of the virus-killing compound.
Their idea is that when the coronavirus lands on the packaging, “the active compound will disrupt the protective coating of the virus,” Dr. Mason told CBC News. The first step in the research is to find the right molecules to embed, explained Mason. The next step is to ensure that the compound can survive the high temperatures that happen during the plastics extrusion process.
“So, if we can’t embed it successfully, can we just add it as a coating?” asked Dr. Mason.
Dr. Mason hopes her team will identify compounds the research team can then use to develop a coating that could be sprayed on other packaging, like cardboard.
While Dr. Mason’s lab is still the exploration phase, the lab has high hopes to find an effective fighter in the war against the COVID-19 virus. “All successful candidates will get sent to a virology lab where they’d actually test the efficacy on COVID-19,” she said.
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