Texas A&M researchers find way to neutralize coronavirus in split second after exposure to extreme heat

Published: May. 4, 2021 at 10:41 PM CDT
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COLLEGE STATION, Texas (KBTX) - Researchers at Texas A&M have found they can neutralize the coronavirus by exposing it to very high heat in just a split second.

The team found they can completely kill the virus by exposing it to temperatures around 72 degrees Celsius, which is about 160 degrees Fahrenheit, for slightly less than a second. This isn’t the first time heat has been used in an experiment like this with the virus, but the speed at which the virus is neutralized is what makes it more practical for potential uses in the real world.

Dr. Arum Han is a professor in Texas A&M’s Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering and leads the team of collaborators on this effort.

“Previous studies have looked into applying the heat for several minutes, 30 minutes, or an hour and shown that they can inactivate it,” Han said. “Having to heat something up for several minutes to an hour often times is not very practical.”

Han and his team conduct the experiment by flowing a solution containing the virus through a very thin stainless steel tube. The tube, which has a diameter of less than a millimeter, goes into a heating bath and then transferred into an ice bath. Han says that allows the virus solution to cool down almost immediately so they can apply a very short pulse of heat and still be able to measure the amount of remaining virus. They do that by collecting the virus sample that is heat-treated and co-incubate it with a host cell to see if that cell still becomes infected or not.

“If you apply about a half-second at that temperature, it can eliminate almost everything, close to 100,000 times elimination of what is in the original solution,” Han said.

Han says some companies are already working on installing this technology into air filtration systems that could help neutralize the virus in indoor settings, where COVID-19 presents the biggest threat.

”You build a system into an air conditioning or HVAC system, or you build into maybe an air purifying system, as long as you can flow this virus and as long as it’s exposed to that level of heat for that duration, we think you can actually inactivate these viruses,” Han said.

Right now, Han says those kinds of inventions are facing engineering problems to ensure they would operate efficiently.

“How do you minimize energy consumption? How much air can you treat in a given time?” Han said. “But fundamentally, if you can expose this virus to those temperatures in a short duration of time, we think we can get the job done.”

Han says indoor air purification is where this technology is needed most in terms of having the largest impact.

Han and his team plan to continue their work on this experiment by exposing the virus to even higher temperatures for shorter periods of time and get the same results.

“For example, we want to try a 10-millisecond or 15-millisecond exposure,” Han said. “That’s important because if you think about an air purification system, we would like to push a lot of air through a ventilation system very fast. Contact time to heating is much shorter, so we would like to get that answer. Can we even shorten that half a second into maybe a tenth of a second or one-hundredth of a second?”

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