Reusable face masks that help reduce the spread of COVID-19 are the goal of a novel nanotechnology-based research project at the University of Guelph supported by federal funding worth $50,000.

In what U of G  chemistry professor Aicheng Chen called one of a few such projects under way, he aims to develop unique anti-viral nanocomposites for ultra-thin coatings on face masks and other personal protective equipment (PPE) to protect health-care workers and patients.

These thin coatings – to be made from a nano-scale material called graphene – may bind with the COVID-19-causing virus, disinfecting equipment to allow its reuse, said Chen.

He received a one-year, $50,000 award from the Alliance COVID-19 grant program of the Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC). Chen is working with ZEN Graphene Solutions Ltd. based in Thunder Bay, Ont.

“We are aiming to develop graphene-based nanocomposites to be used as a new type of coating on equipment,” said Chen. “With this coating, we hope to disinfect the virus and reuse PPE or face masks.”

The novel coronavirus can spread through the air and on surfaces. With ongoing concerns about mask shortages and possible disease transmission from various surfaces, reusable face masks that prevent COVID-19 infection may help protect front-line health-care workers, he said.

Prof. Aicheng Chen

As the lightest and thinnest material known, graphene is one-millionth of the thickness of a human hair. It’s produced from graphite, the type of carbon found in pencil “lead.”

At nanoscale, the lightweight 2-D material combines high strength, flexibility and conductivity. It holds promise for various applications, from electronics and batteries to sensors for detecting drug compounds in environmental or biological samples.

Chen will also study ways to modify graphene to improve its ability to bind with and disinfect the virus. He said nanomaterials (a nanometre is a billionth of a metre) have long been investigated for their anti-viral and anti-bacterial properties.

He has worked with ZEN Graphene Solutions since 2015 on earlier NSERC-funded projects.

Peter Wood, president of the company, said, “ZEN is excited to be collaborating with Professor Chen and his team in this project to develop an advanced filter with anti-viral properties that will help in the fight against COVID-19. If successful, the company is very interested in advancing the results in Canada, and several commercialization options are being considered.”

Prof. Aicheng Chen