Researchers at Northumbria University in the UK, have been tasked by the government’s Defence and Security Accelerator (DASA) to develop an antiviral coating suitable for use on everyday surfaces.

DASA, part of the Ministry of Defence, has commissioned a research team from Northumbria to develop a new type of multifunctional antiviral coating to be used in public health crises such as the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.

In partnership with Defence Science and Technology Laboratory (DSTL), academics from the University’s Department of Applied Sciences are working to create a unique “superhydrophobic” – low friction – coating that destroys viruses while maintaining robust and easy-to-clean properties.

While antiviral coatings are not a new concept, existing approaches can release chemical compounds into the environment, are not long-lasting or are difficult to clean and maintain. This coating aims to provide a solution, researchers say.

Funding from DASA will enable the research team to explore wide-ranging applications, to understand whether the coating is universally robust on an array of surfaces and materials. It is hoped that in the future it could be used on high-contact surfaces such as handrails on public transport, hospital carts or retail cash registers, as well as in the home.

The team sees the coating as a tool that could help bring down the COVID-19 rate, while allowing more scope for “normal” life to continue.

“Having the ability and insight to design multifunctional coating systems that can create long-lasting defence against viruses, whilst also being compatible with everyday life, is challenging yet important,” says Dr. Matt Unthank, Project Lead and Associate Professor in Polymer Chemistry.

“It’s not just about destroying viruses in the laboratory. New coating systems and surface treatments need to be robustness, easy to clean, universal in their application, safe and low-cost. Our research seeks to explore these interdependencies and to develop new antiviral coating systems for the current and future pandemics.”

Disinfecting methods such as chemical, bleach or alcohol-based products actively destroy, or deactivate, microorganisms such as bacteria and viruses on contact. However, this approach requires constant retreatment of the surfaces with disinfecting agent which can be labor-intensive and impractical.

An alternative approach is to create a permanent or semi-permanent surface that destroys virus particles on contact, known as an antiviral surface. These fall into two major categories:

1) those that slowly leach virucidal chemicals from a coated surface into the environment resulting in an antiviral effect, known as “controlled release” biocidal or virucidal coatings.

2) those that have a surface that is permanently capable of destroying microorganisms, such as coronavirus and are known as “contact biocidal” or “contact virucidal” coating

Unthank and his team are focusing on developing new multifunctional contact biocidal and virucidal coatings, which are safe, do not release chemicals to the environment and are user-friendly and universal in their application.