A glove made of the textile-based material that can kill coronaviruses by applying heat without burning users’ skin. Photo: Gustavo Raskosky/Rice University.
A glove made of the textile-based material that can kill coronaviruses by applying heat without burning users’ skin. Photo: Gustavo Raskosky/Rice University.

A new material that packs deadly heat for viruses on its outer surface while staying cool on the reverse side could transform the way we make and use personal protective equipment (PPE), cutting down the pollution and carbon footprint associated with current materials and practices.

The composite, textile-based material, developed by engineers at Rice University, uses Joule heating to decontaminate its surface of coronaviruses like SARS-CoV-2 in under five seconds, effectively killing at least 99.9% of viruses. Wearable items made from the material could handle hundreds of uses that would normally require disposable gloves, preventing nearly 20 pounds of waste that would have resulted from discarded single-use nitrile gloves.

“The surge in magnitude of PPE waste and problems caused by supply chain shortages during the pandemic made us realize the need for reusable PPE,” said Marquise Bell, a Rice mechanical engineering graduate student who is the lead author of a paper on this work in ACS Applied Materials and Interfaces. “This work paves the way for a systemic shift away from single-use disposable PPE.

“The best part is you don’t even need to take off the gloves or other protective garments in order to clean them. This material allows you to decontaminate in seconds, so you can get back to the task at hand.”

Using electrical current, the material rapidly heats up its outer surface to temperatures above 100°C (212°F), while remaining close to normal body temperature on the reverse side near the user’s skin, where it reaches a maximum of about 36°C (97°F).

“The device has to get hot enough to effectively kill viruses, but not so hot that it causes burns or discomfort for the user,” Bell said. “We included safety mechanisms to make sure the latter doesn’t happen.”

Compared to other decontamination methods, dry heat tends to be both reliable and less likely to damage protective equipment. However, making wearables that heat up to adequate temperatures quickly has required a lot of work.

“Our lab has looked a lot at the thermal inactivation of viruses,” said Daniel Preston, an assistant professor of mechanical engineering and co-author of the paper. “We started during the pandemic with support from a National Science Foundation grant, trying to understand the mechanism by which these viruses are inactivated and how it's accelerated at higher temperatures.” This earlier research helped influence the design of the material.

Yizhi Jane Tao, a professor of biosciences whose virology lab conducted experiments to confirm the material’s powers of self-decontamination, was impressed by how closely the experimental data matched predictions. “We’re very happy that we can contribute our expertise toward this new material,” she said.

Kai Ye, a graduate student in the Tao lab who helped with the research, said the gloves handled “the infectivity test” well and promise to protect against other similar viruses.

Considering the temperature difference between its outer and inner surfaces, the material is surprisingly supple and lightweight – a feat that feeds directly into Bell’s research focus on smart textile materials.

“I study the mechanics, thermodynamics and heat transfer processes of soft goods that can be layered for use in wearable assistive devices,” said Bell, who is funded by a NASA Space Technology Graduate Research Opportunities fellowship. “Spacesuits, for instance, are made up of many layers. The innermost layers are where a lot of the functionality happens, close to the human body. Then you have a lot of thermally insulating layers in between, topped off with firmer, more protective layers on the outside of the suit.

“I look at how we can use smart textile materials and integrate them into spacesuits to decrease their weight while adding multifunctionality.”

This story is adapted from material from Rice University, with editorial changes made by Materials Today. The views expressed in this article do not necessarily represent those of Elsevier. Link to original source.