Students Redesign Touch Surfaces

Senior design students at Michigan Tech are studying materials that can help make touch surfaces safer and cleaner in the heart of a pandemic.

A senior design team at Michigan Tech is working hard to develop a copper alloy that can be effectively deployed as an bacteria-killing surface. (Credit: Michigan Technological University.)

A senior design team at Michigan Tech is working hard to develop a copper alloy that can be effectively deployed as an bacteria-killing surface. (Credit: Michigan Technological University.)

The COVID-19 pandemic has changed the way most of us behave on a daily basis. We’re working from home and spending far more time than we ever could have imagined sitting in our sweatpants teleconferencing with our co-workers or attending virtual happy hours with our friends and family. When we do venture out of our homes, we have become supremely aware of our surroundings. Every interaction with an individual or surface could bring us into contact with the coronavirus.

The past year (and counting) has likely changed human behavior forever. Seeing masks on airplanes may not be uncommon even a few years down the road, and many of us will continue to wear them each flu season. The pandemic has also brought about a stunning surge in innovation as companies and researchers all over the world team up to contribute in their own way to eradicating the virus.

The coronavirus is primarily transmitted through the air, with surface transmission extremely rare. This is something scientists and virologists have determined as the pandemic drags on. This information was not known in the early months of the pandemic while the virus ran rampant across the globe. With the rate of surface transmission initially unknown, researchers immediately began studying ways to engineer materials to limit the amount of time that the coronavirus could live on touch surfaces.

A senior design team at Michigan Tech University (MTU) is among the researchers on the hunt for a better antimicrobial touch surface. Anna Isaacson, Sidney Feige, Lauren Bowling and Maria Rochow, students in MTU’s materials science and engineering department, teamed up to study how copper alloys can effectively be deployed to serve as antimicrobial surfaces.

Copper alloys are among the most effective when it comes to limiting how long viruses and bacteria can live on an exposed surface. Unfortunately, copper is heavy, expensive, and not always visually appealing to consumers. What’s more, if manufacturers reduce the amount of copper in an alloy to make it cheaper, lighter and more attractively colored, its antimicrobial properties diminish quickly.

This is where the team from Michigan hopes to make an impact. They are studying coextrusion techniques to make a lighter, cheaper copper alloy that retains all its bacteria-killing power. Aluminum alloys and brass are being studied as potential coextrusion candidates with copper to create an optimal alloy. Ultimately, the team hopes to develop a copper alloy that can be used for doorknobs and handrails that is light and cost-effective, and which can be manufactured in multiple colors and finishes to appeal to consumers.

So many senior design projects are completely theoretical or lacking in real-world applications, but not this one. The MTU student team is getting a unique opportunity to dive right in and help contribute to research that could help to limit the spread of a deadly virus. The lessons these students learn while diligently working in the lab to search for an engineering breakthrough that may help slow the spread of viruses in the future will serve them well in the future regardless of where their careers take them.