Whether it’s door handles or handrails, shared workstations or park benches, the ongoing coronavirus pandemic has upended our way of looking at the surfaces that make up the world around us.
And our increased caution isn’t without good reason – scientific studies suggest coronaviruses, like the one causing the current COVID-19 crisis, can live on metal, glass and ceramics for up to five days, and for between two and four days for materials like wood, plastic and stainless steel.
Manual cleaning is the way most of us are battling the COVID threat right now but as we look forward to a return to public life, a sanitising solution that is quicker, and able to cover more ground could be a helpful ally. It’s a view shared by some product designers who are turning to a kind of UV light to meet these needs.
The difference between harmful and helpful UV light
While traditional UV light is harmful for humans and can cause anything from wrinkles and sunburn, to eye problems and even some cancers, far-UVC light can be used to effectively sanitise surfaces.
The difference between harmful or helpful lies in the wavelength of the UV light – 254 nanometres causes the problems we associate with UV light, but 222 nanometres kills viruses and leaves humans alone.
Products that can harness this good UV light could be part of the way we encourage confidence in going outside again, according to Dr Mike Themis, a virologist at Brunel University London.
Over the past year, Dr Themis and his team at Brunel have been working with Space Republic, a start-up company that is seeking to design new and innovative ways to get people back into disused public spaces.
The partnership, which has been supported with a grant from Innovate UK, has resulted in Pluto – a connected, remote working pod that uses UVC light to disinfect its surfaces between users.
“This solution fits really well with where we are as a society right now”
As Dr Themis explains, Pluto is a solution that aims to revive town and city centres that currently have an excess of empty retail units, while also getting workers out of the house safely.
“It’s hard to work from home, and there are only so many cups of coffee you can drink in a coffee shop – this solution fits really well with where we are as a society right now,” he says.
In terms of the design of the space, each pod acts like a cubicle in which users can simple “plug in and play”, Dr Themis adds, with an internet connection and plug sockets. A front window is included to help people still feel connected with the space around them and ease any feelings of claustrophobia. Any number of pods could be assembled, he says, dependent on the space at hand.
The current iteration of Pluto is the partnership’s third prototype, Dr Themis says. At all stages of the process, the scientific team at Brunel has worked with Space Republic’s designers and engineers to ensure a scientifically robust the solution. Currently, the UVC light cleaning technology is paired with a HEPA filter to ensure both the air and surfaces are sterilised between uses.
“We are using this natural component of light inside the pods to kill the virus at its core by destroying its DNA,” he says, adding that in tests, the team use live versions of the COVID-19 virus to ensure the technology effectively eliminates it from the pods’ surfaces. As the team continue to refine and perfect the technology, Dr Themis said it is only a matter a time before it can be used in other contexts beyond disused retail units and city centres. Hospitals and GP surgeries are just two examples that he says could be on the cards.
“We couldn’t find anything else”
On a smaller scale, inventions like HQube aim to take UVC tech and introduce it into the home. HQube is a portable sanitation device, which uses the same kind of technology as Pluto but in the context of “high-touch” household items like masks, phones, toys, pet products and clothes, which can all easily become contaminated while wearers and users are out and about.
Maria Eerolainen, co-founder of HQube, says the motivation behind the product came from not finding anything like it on the market.
“We tried cleaning all our items with solvents and sprays and it did not work out too well,” she says. “We looked to see if there were any alternatives to chemicals and while we could find UVC products for phones, we couldn’t find any for anything else.”
“UVC light would be a good way of helping people reuse items”
To use HQube, users simply assemble the box, place their items inside, zip it up and start the UV system. It’s a similar system to the “professional cabinets” that can be found in hospitals, which are often far too expensive for home use.
UVC light technology doesn’t come without its challenges though. Like any cleaning solution, complete coverage is key to eliminating all germs. Effectiveness and safety were the team’s biggest considerations throughout, Eerolainen says.
She continues: “At one point, we were concerned with how we could reach every crevice in the HQube even when items were not laid flat. We achieved this by using reflective material so that light is always bounced back without leaving any areas uncovered.”
While the technology can’t be used in a medical capacity because of testing and regulations, Eerolainen says there could be an interesting future for HQube in reducing waste, as well as dealing with viral transmission of pathogens.
“There are many industries that have single use consumables and being able to sanitise with UVC light would be a good way of helping people reuse items rather than throwing them away,” she says.
“More humane” meet-ups
UVC solutions for the public realm are also a possibility. Studio Roosegaarde introduced its first Urban Sun sanitiser to the streets of Rotterdam earlier this month.
The futuristic-looking UVC light source can be suspended in the air in multiple ways, and is intended to provide a “more humane” way for people to meet up outdoors that doesn’t involve as many “plastic barriers and distance stickers”, according to studio founder Daan Roosegaarde. He does however note that Urban Sun would be part of a wider set of solutions to reduce COVID transmission and wouldn’t work on its own to stop the pandemic.
The path to making the Urban Sun was a lengthy one, Roosegaarde says. Peer-reviewed scientific papers on the effects of UVC light for sanitising first caught his attention in 2018, and in the following years he had upwards of 250 calls with scientists and academics about the technology. Of course, when the pandemic began in earnest in 2020, his work took on a whole new significance.
“A symbol of hope”
Like any other design project, Roosegaarde concentrated on how it might comfortably fit in with the lives of people. A decision was made to include a visible light above the UVC “cone”, since UVC light isn’t visible to the human eye. A visible marker would help people adjust to the intervention, he says.
“People need to get used to new ideas,” says Roosegaarde, adding people often ask why, if UVC light is so powerful, is it not already in use around the world for just this purpose. “Innovation isn’t just about science and tech, and I think one of the major roles design will play in this challenge is to help people accept change and innovation through storytelling.”
For Roosegaard, the increasing number of UVC products being brought to market signifies the possibilities that exist when science and design meet.
“All these issues are design challenges as far as I’m concerned,” he says. “A lot of us, myself included, are not politicians or virology experts – so it’s up to us to use our design skills and work together to sort this out.
“I’d like to think of Urban Sun and things like it as a symbol of hope.”