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USask engineering researcher Carey Simonson with air exchanger testing equipment. (Photo: Submitted)

USask researchers take aim at airborne COVID-19 virus

Daily moments made potentially risky by COVID-19, such as cramming into a crowded bus or elevator, sitting in a packed classroom, and visiting a vulnerable relative in long-term care, may be rendered safer again thanks to new federally funded University of Saskatchewan (USask) research into ventilation systems.

With COVID-19 rapid-response funding from Canada’s Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council (NSERC), USask engineering researcher Carey Simonson (PhD) is leading a team, along with industry partner Aldes Canada, to develop testing equipment to measure how airborne viruses are transferred in building ventilation systems.  

SARS-CoV-2 virus may remain airborne for hours and can be transported tens of metres indoors and even further within air ducts,” said Simonson. We want to see whether airborne viruses in the exhaust air of buildings are returned to the fresh supply air used to ventilate and reduce contaminants in buildings.”  

Simonson’s research will focus on developing air exchangers which conserve energy without contaminating fresh air, using a barrier membrane to prevent viruses and other tiny pathogens from penetrating. He expects to have preliminary results in six months, and if successful, effective membranes could be incorporated into air exchangers within year. 

Simonson is also a co-investigator on a new NSERC-funded project led by USask engineering researcher Jafar Soltan (PhD) which aims to inactivate airborne pathogens using an air sanitization device. Soltan will test the effectiveness and feasibility of the device for use in existing air conditioning systems. 

The research will improve indoor air quality, reducing the risk of spread of airborne pathogens in health-care facilities, seniors residences and transit systems where maintaining adequate social distancing may be difficult,” said Soltan. 

Soltan’s project, which also involves researchers from the USask College of Medicine, the USask Vaccine and Infectious Disease Organization—International Vaccine Centre (VIDO-InterVac), and industry partner Engineered Air, will assess whether virus particles can be made harmless using ozone gas activated by a catalyst.  

Soltan expects to have results within one year. 

Other USask projects that have also received NSERC funding to fight COVID-19 include: 

  • Better drug development using the Canadian Light Source (CLS) synchrotron: Working with industry partner Applied NanoTools Inc., USask engineering researcher Sven Achenbach will use the CLS, a national research facility of USask, to develop specialized “zone plates” that focus X-ray light. The plates can be used for the rapid design of new drugs to combat COVID-19 and other diseases.  
  • Tracking possible introduction of COVID-19 virus into Canadian wildlife: Working with Environment and Climate Change Canada, Canadian Wildlife Health Cooperative, Harvard University, and VIDO-InterVac, a team of USask researchers led by veterinary microbiologist Vikram Misraand colleagues Darryl Falzarano and Emily Jenkins, along with biologist Christy Morrissey,will develop a blood test to monitor many wildlife species for exposure to SARS-CoV-2, the COVID-19-causing virus. It is very likely SARS-CoV-2 originated in a wild animal, and there’s a possibility the virus may jump back from people into wild animals, become stronger, and change itself for reintroduction into humans, Misra said. 
  • Combatting COVID-19 through better data management: USask mechanical engineering researcher Chris Zhang, working with USask PhD student Randy Lin and the Saskatchewan Health Authority, will study how various types of health information can be integrated to help health-care decision makers, particularly health emergency managers, gather accurate information in a timely manner during a pandemic. 

Through the COVID rapid-response funding program, NSERC has awarded each of the USask projects nearly $50,000 for one year to address pandemic-related research and technical challengesworking with industry, public sector, and not-for-profit partners.  

 

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