Nanoprotection Against Viral Infection

What began in Dr. Steve Michielsen’s lab as an effort to clean up the environment could end up protecting first responders and health care workers from viral infections, including pandemic-type illnesses. A nanocoating technology developed by Michielsen could also produce cheaper stain- and water-resistant fabrics and better air filters—and just might end up helping the environment after all.

Michielsen, a chemist by trade and an associate professor of textiles technology in the College of Textiles, was working at DuPont in the mid-1990s when he developed a better way to grease the skids for carpet fibers spinning through machinery at 350 mph. Manufacturers typically soaked the fibers with lubricants that they later washed off. But that meant flushing about 500 million pounds of lubricants into the nation’s water system every year. Michielsen found that he could chemically bond a five-nanometer layer of lubricant to the fibers so they could glide through the spinning machinery and wouldn’t need a wash later.

“We’re learning a lot about polymer physics and how to control the surface properties of fibers.”

DuPont never adopted the technology—Michielsen says the nanocoating attracts other grease, so carpets dull quickly—but he began experimenting to see how other surface properties of fibers could be affected by nanocoatings. “We could use a number of physical properties of fiber surfaces both to address a commercial problem and learn more about the underlying science,” he says, ticking off a list that includes friction, surface tension, adhesion, and electrostatic charge.

The biggest success to date has come by adding anti-microbial agents developed at Emory University to his coating. The combination was initially expected to defeat odors in carpets and clothing, but tests show the light-activated agents work better against viruses than bacteria. Michielsen’s research was spun off last year as LaamScience, Inc., which is developing masks for hospital workers and conducting FDA- and EPA-required tests to show how well the coated fibers in them work against influenza and drug-resistant staph viruses. The anti-microbial agents are also believed to work against potential pandemic viruses like avian flu and SARS.

Michielsen’s research team is now studying the fibers in indoor air filters to determine how best to use electrostatic charges to capture dust and other allergens. They also have shown that nanocoatings can make fabrics water-resistant without expensive processes. Both studies could reduce the amount of chemicals and waste in production. “We’re learning a lot about polymer physics and how to control the surface properties of fibers,” he says. “Sometimes that leads to new findings in physics; sometimes it leads to a new application.”

 

Dr. Steve Michielsen examines fabric that has been covered by his patented nanocoating

A close-up image of the coated fibers being produced by NC State spin-off LaamScience, Inc.