Engineers from the University of Warwick, UK, have developed a concept for creating lightweight, public transport grab-poles that could help prevent the spread of COVID-19. Dr Darren Hughes, Associate Professor of Materials and Manufacturing at Warwick Manufacturing Group (WMG), explains more.
DirectIndustry e-mag: How did this project come about?
Dr Hughes: We had a project looking at lightweight, low-cost tubular materials for the rail sector and were working on a composite, polymer-based material with a reinforcement in it. One of our PhD students, Anubhav Singh, suggested that because of the manufacturing process we could consider incorporating a powder with antimicrobial properties into the surface of the polymer. This would give it a durable, antimicrobial finish. His initial idea was to target coronavirus but, as we looked into it, we realized there was opportunity here for preventing the spread of other viruses and infectious agents too.
DirectIndustry e-mag: Can you tell us more about the material?
Dr Hughes: It’s a composite, dual-phase material. We use a nylon polymer and add fibres (glass or carbon) to give it strength without mass. A polymer composite has low density, as well as high performance, which makes it ideal for public transport systems which need to be light and energy saving. What we are now working on is taking an antimicrobial finish and embedding it into the polymer. Silver and copper are used for antimicrobial finishing in a number of applications but tend to be applied after something has been produced, which means they can get rubbed off easily. The idea here is that we embed the silver or copper particles into the polymer so that as the polymer wears, more of the antimicrobial silver or copper is exposed and the grab-poles continue to have antimicrobial properties.
DirectIndustry e-mag: Could this lightweight, antimicrobial material have other applications?
Dr Hughes: Yes, we are very excited about the other possibilities. We have had interest from partners in the cruise industry. Even before the coronavirus pandemic they had a big problem with norovirus and if their stair rails, for example, could be made from this material then it could help instil confidence among their passengers. Hospital settings are another possibility as this could be ideal for the rails on the sides of beds, for example. We can make any shape with this technology, so it has enormous potential. Once we have proven it, there is no reason why it can’t be embedded in anything made of a polymer.
DirectIndustry e-mag: How soon could we see the grab-poles in place?
Dr Hughes: We are working with a company called Composite Braiding and they would like the product to be ready to market by November this year. They are essentially looking to make the technology open so the wider world can benefit from it. With copper and silver, you have to go through quite a detailed process to prove that a surface repels or destroys a certain virus but the UK government agency the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) is a partner and is conducting biological trials for us. The poles will be retrofittable, so they will be able to replace existing steel poles on trams, buses and the Underground. As we move out of the current pandemic, the worry is that people will turn to their cars rather than using public transport. If we can give them confidence about public transport being a clean environment, then everyone wins.