We need to get back to work. Soon. But how will we feel safe from infections? Two companies are banking on ultraviolet light to kill the coronavirus but there are major safety threats. Here’s how they’re handling the challenges and creating solutions.
Before we can get back into offices, schools, or board planes, buses or even cruise ships, we need to be sure that these places are safe from infectious COVID-19 particles on surfaces and in the air.
While there’s mounting evidence that alcohol-based cleaning removes the virus from surfaces and prevents spread, it’s not fool proof. It relies on people not missing a spot, puts cleaners in danger, and can lead to nasty chemicals ending up in the environment.
Researchers are working hard to come up with other solutions and UV-C germicidal irradiation technology is one option on the table. Its proponents say it could be an affordable, effective way to keep our shared spaces clean and safe without putting a huge strain on the environment.
While this technology has been used in health facilities for decades and in China to disinfect trains and buses of COVID-19, two Australian companies are working hard to crack the code on this technology to make it safe for widespread use here.
One of those is Melbourne-based lighting design company, Brightgreen.
According to the company’s chief executive officer, David O’Driscoll, it’s long been established that UV-C germicidal irradiation technology can effectively exterminate viruses and bacteria and now new research from National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, Princeton University, University of California and University of Washington shows that it can kill COVID-19 specifically.
He told The Fifth Estate that the research (which is yet to be peer-reviewed) provides guidance on how long it takes to kill the virus on various materials, including hard surfaces and fabrics.
While this was an important box to tick, O’Driscoll says safety is the other missing piece of the puzzle.
“[UV-C technology] is dangerous for humans, you are guaranteed to get severe damage to skin, and once you’ve been exposed there’s a high probability of cancer.”
This is why O’Driscoll company has a team of eight engineers looking to completely eradicate the human element to decrease the “probability of errors”.
O’Driscoll says there are about eight different standards that cover the technology, with “presence detection” a key requirement. Existing UV-C systems used in hospitals are able to detect when someone is in the room using sensors and are operated according to set of procedures that practitioners are specially trained and accredited for.
This might be safe enough in “very process driven” hospitals but the risk increases dramatically in “chaotic” places such as a schools.
“The challenge is how to make it safe for places that aren’t as orderly.”
The engineers are employing the “swiss cheese theory” used in the aeronautical industry to ensure there are no weaknesses in the system. This involves collecting a large number of data points, including rooms outside where the lighting system will be deployed to predict someone walking in.
“You could be running laps or passed out cold, the system will recognise your presence and stop the UV-C lights from turning on,” Brightgreen’s head of engineering, Nathan Moffat, says.
The system is set up to be fully automated to run overnight, with dual spectrum lights that switch between regular visual lighting and UV-C.
O’Driscoll asserts that a permanent system is a safe option because it’s possible to fully automate and remove room for human error, and that preliminary modelling shows that a permanent system is likely to be cheaper in the long run despite higher capital costs to install.
How far away are these lighting systems?
Before the coronavirus turned the world upside down, the company was working on a comprehensive building wellness system that had UV-C technology integrated into it to kill common viruses and pathogens (it also performs other health and wellbeing functions such as managing air quality).
It’s since swiftly reoriented this system to tackle the coronavirus pandemic. O’Driscoll says this involves re-programming the UV-C componentry so that the light goes on long enough and at the right intensity to kill the virus completely.
The product has been assembled and is now being trialled in two locations in Melbourne, where it will be assessed by the relevant authorities to ensure its safety.
Hospitals to come first, followed by mines
Once the system passes safety checks, he expects hospital and other health facilities to deploy it first. It’s not the only sector lodging enquiries, however, and O’Driscoll says interest is largely dictated by budget, with mining companies among those keen to spend what it takes to get back in action.
Schools, pharmacies, aged care and prisons are also showing interest in the system.
The system’s design will be open source so that any other company can build its own version.
“We’re not interested in making money off of this, this is an exercise we all have to work on.”
UV-C germicidal irradiation technology-as-a-service
As always, there’s more than one way to tackle a problem, and GERMii is another company leveraging the technology.
While other businesses have steered clear of portable products on safety grounds, GERMii is handling the safety concern by relying on its own well trained and heavily protected team to deliver onsite UV-C cleaning services.
Cleaning staff operate in complete isolation and are covered head-to-toe in high-grade personal protective equipment that prevents exposure to the harmful UV rays, complete with gumboots and a face shield.
Patterson says that the technology is “not a toy”, which is why the company is offering it as a service, not a product. He says that the company abides by all relevant Australian standards on safety and environmental risks.
GERMii sprung out of a data and computer disposal business that lost much of its business when the lockdowns came into force, prompting its leaders to pivot to keep its employees in work. Engineer and founder of the new business, Shan Patterson, came up with the idea of adapting UV-C germicidal irradiation technology that he had used in the past to sterilise water in Papua New Guinea.
There could be environmental benefits
Patterson says his company’s service won’t replace existing cleaning options but will serve as an additional option for clients looking for peace of mind.
“The more we looked into it, the more we found it’s a really smart option.”
Energy use is another component to consider and while it’s not a particularly energy-intensive technology, the longer the light is on, the more effective it will be.
“There’s no residue leftover, or chemical smells, there’s nothing going down the drain.”
Where a portable service will work
The company is attracting attention in the health space, including for use in emergency vehicles such as ambulances.
Patterson says it’s also good for hard-to-reach places and surfaces and objects unsuitable for chemical-based cleaning, such as electronics.
“You can’t spray chemicals on [electronics]; they don’t like it.
“This treatment touches everything the light can touch.”
This will make the technology attractive for offices and call centres, which typically sit people close together in an open plan room.
The beleaguered cruise liner sector is also likely to jump on this kind of technology, as will airlines and public transport.