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Particle physicists fight COVID-19

Particle physicists fighting COVID-19

Particle physicists at ANSTO teamed up with tech professionals to help fight the spread of COVID-19.

In March 2020, a woman unknowingly infected with COVID-19 spread the disease to 71 other people after taking a solo trip in a lift.

Enclosed public spaces with recirculated air, like lifts, are high-risk for spreading disease. But what if there was a way to purify the air and keep the space free of virus particles? A group of scientists from ANSTO – one of Australia’s biggest public research organisations and Australia’s centre for nuclear expertise – teamed up with tech professionals from its innovation centre, nandin, for NASA’s Space Apps COVID-19 Challenge, to try and solve that problem.

The NASA hackathon lasted 48 hours, and the ANSTO/nandin team, including industrial designer ShanShan Wang, started by calculating how much air in a lift is exhaled from other passengers – around 2%, or 48 litres. “That’s like 24 2L milk bottles hanging from the ceiling,” explains team captain Dr Mitra Safavi-Naeini, a particle physicist and cancer researcher from ANSTO.

RELATED: 6 tech innovations in response to COVID-19

Inspired by space

They also looked at how COVID-19 cases in New York City compared with public transport use, and found a strong correlation. Around 75% of the air was recirculated, meaning that if more than 20% of a train carriage is occupied, airborne pathogens (disease particles) could be circulating.

“There is a question of how much one has to breathe prior to getting infected, but if you can minimise the number of pathogens, you would, right? It’s a no-brainer,” says Mitra, who also leads research into human health at ANSTO.

The solution they came up with, called Elavo, draws inspiration from the International Space Station (ISS). First, a titanium dioxide cartridge – used on the ISS to inactivate pathogens in the air – would be fitted into the recirculation system. Then the empty lift or train carriage would be exposed to ultraviolet light to inactivate pathogens on surfaces. Finally, acoustic sensors could detect coughs and sneezes and increase airflow through the system when needed.

The project won the Best Use of Technology prize against 1400 other teams. It was the ANSTO/nandin team’s third hackathon, and their third win. The prize for Elavo includes an invitation to see the next NASA rocket launch.

The Elavo team is also already in discussions with potential investors and business partners that could make the technology a reality.

ANSTO’s innovation centre

Sometimes called a ‘people collider’, nandin is a place where startups and small businesses can connect with researchers and facilities at ANSTO to come up with innovative solutions to challenging problems. The word ‘nandin’ means ‘look ahead’ in the local Dharawal language.

This article is brought to you in partnership with ANSTO. Check out their innovation centre here

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