Rebuild for the Pandemic Era with Disinfecting UV Light
Updated: Nov 23, 2020
When Regal Theaters recently announced it would shut all of its 663 movie theaters across the country, it should have been big news. But amid the tens of thousands of other public gathering spots already suffering the same fate, people hardly even seemed to notice.
This new normal is increasingly confronting us with two hard truths. First, the Pandemic Era has only just begun and will be with us for decades. And second, to resume even the semblance of normal lives, we will have to identify and leverage technologies capable of neutralizing the coronavirus and other pathogens. I'm talking about technologies that will operate all day, every day, and become ubiquitous as we build them into our global public and private infrastructure.
Does such a technology exist today? Yes, in fact it does. It's a new variant of a well-understood technology that's been around for decades—ultraviolet disinfecting light.
Short-Wavelength UV Light: The New Disinfection Infrastructure Solution We Need
Masks and vaccines will be with us for the long term, not only to fight Covid, but also to deter many future Pandemic Era pathogens that experts tell us are on the way. But masks only trap viruses without killing them. And a Covid vaccine won’t go to work until the virus has already entered your body and started to infect you. Moreover, because each new vaccine is specific to a particular epidemic, it's powerless to stop the next one.
Shortwave UV light, on the other hand, can attack and neutralize all kinds of airborne viruses and bacteria before you even have a chance to breathe them in.
Through a process known as ultraviolet germicidal irradiation (UVGI), UV light has been used for decades to sterilize air, water, and surfaces in hospitals and clean-room settings.
Until recently, however, there were drawbacks that limited the usefulness of disinfecting UV light. Excimer lamps that emit invisible light at a 254-nanometer "UVC" wavelength deactivate coronavirus and other pathogens, but they can also cause serious damage to the skin and eyes. Therefore, they have only been used in enclosed air or water filters, or in other environments where the harmful light won’t come into contact with people.
"Far-UVC" 222nm Light Can Neutralize Coronavirus Without Harming Humans
But new research at Columbia University by Prof. David Brenner, at Kobe University, and elsewhere has demonstrated that a variant of UVC light with a shorter 222-nanometer wavelength can inactivate coronavirus without harming humans. The research has shown that at the shorter wavelength, UV does not penetrate the protective layer of tears in the human eye or the outer, dead layer of skin on humans. This 222-nanometer variant of shortwave UV light is known as "far-UVC" light.
According to the independent research, shortwave far-UVC light is safer for use around people than longer-wavelength disinfecting UVC light that must be shielded from people. At the same time, it's still capable of deactivating more than 99.9% of the viruses and bacteria in its path. That makes it a potential game-changer in the global battle against coronavirus and other pathogens.
Suppliers of UV light have quickly gone to work to develop new products that emit far-UVC light. Which makes it possible to imagine a future where public and private spaces are routinely bathed in human-safe disinfecting UV light that might dramatically reduce the transmission of Covid and countless other future airborne diseases.
Imagining the New Pandemic-Era Infrastructure
Cities and communities around the world have always reinvented themselves following pandemics and natural disasters, coming back stronger, safer, and more vibrant than ever. After its great fire in 1871, Chicago shed its reliance on wood and wooden structures, embraced steel as a new building material, and invented the steel-frame skyscraper. Chicago resurrected itself and transformed urban landscapes worldwide in one fell swoop.
Today, far-UVC light is an invention that allows us to imagine a similar transformation. It will enable us to start rebuilding cities that eventually may be pathogen-free in a potential future Post-Pandemic Era. Airports and airplanes, trains and train stations, offices and factories, bars and restaurants, hospitals, subway cars, sports stadiums, ride-share cars, and your own home can all eventually be retrofitted with far-UVC disinfecting ultraviolet light. The list is limitless—including movie theaters.
The prospect of building pathogen-free environments is creating tremendous excitement not only in the public health community, but among the architects, engineers, and urban planners designing new public infrastructure for the Pandemic Era. And current manufacturers of UVC bulbs such as Ushio and Larsen Electronics are already moving quickly to develop the first far-UVC lamps that can more safely coexist with humans as they are built into public and private spaces.
A Solid-State Far-UVC Breakthrough Will Drive Infrastructure Solutions
Sure, there will be challenges integrating far-UVC light into our global infrastructure. Among other things, today’s far-UVC bulbs are large, fragile, expensive, and too hot to touch. They require expensive filters to block out all but the safe 222-nanometer light waves, and they contain chemicals such as chlorine gas.
But solid-state technology will overcome many of the current limitations of today's far-UVC lamps. New semiconductor chips that emit far-UVC light are coming to the market soon. They run cooler and, at one- or two-inches square, they are tiny compared to the large bulbs required for today’s UVC lamps.
If you’re old enough, you will remember when printed circuit boards with transistors replaced vacuum tubes in your TV. Or you may remember when solid-state LED and LCD flat-panel digital displays replaced the old, huge, analog cathode-ray-tube monitors in computers and TVs. And we’re all currently living through the transition from incandescent lightbulbs to energy-saving LED lights. Solid-state far-UVC chips are an equally large and disruptive generational leap that will enable thousands of entirely new applications of UVGI sanitation around the world.
Coming Soon from NS Nanotech
It’s easy to envision how these new solid-state chips will be integrated into any environment that can benefit from far-UVC light. And, as we’ve seen with every other transition from analog components to solid-state digital components, we will realize the cost-reduction benefits of Moore’s Law over time, eliminating many of the investment hurdles on the way to creation of a new public infrastructure with disinfecting light built in.
At NS Nanotech, we are developing the first solid-state semiconductors that will be capable of emitting far-UVC light. And over the long term, we will be delivering the first nano-LEDs—including nanocrystal-based far-UVC LEDs—that will continue to reduce costs and improve performance of the foundational infrastructure of the built environment in the new Pandemic Era and beyond.
More news on NS Nanotech’s far-UVC developments will be coming soon. So, watch this space.
Seth-Coe Sullivan is Co-Founder and CEO of NS Nanotech