MELBOURNE: At a manufacturing plant, engineer Byron Kennedy is resetting a machine to spray a layer of copper on to a door handle, to use the metal’s antiviral properties to counter the threat of the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) .
His firm Spee3D is better known as a producer of 3D printers for copper and aluminum, used by customers including the Australian military and US Marine Corps to rapidly print new parts for broken equipment.
“Up until the end of last year, our business was building the 3D printers, which were then used to build parts,” Spee3D co-founder Kennedy told Reuters.
“Come 2020, and the epidemic hits. We know about the antimicrobial properties of copper, so we thought: ‘Can we do something, can we help out here?’“
Copper’s disinfectant powers have long been known and its antibacterial, antiviral and anti-fungal properties have been supported by scientific studies.
Spee3D commissioned Melbourne laboratory 360biolabs to look at how SARS-CoV-2, which causes COVID-19, reacts to copper.
The results showed that 96 percent of the virus was killed off in two hours and 99.2 percent in 5 hours, compared to no change on stainless steel surfaces.
This is in line with a US-government funded study published in March that found SARS-CoV-2 remained viable for up to 4 hours on copper, compared with 2 to 3 days on plastic and stainless steel.
Spee3D then reset some of its machines to be able to coat surfaces such as door handles, and has already received orders from two Australian government departments to resurface door handles before staff return to work.
The Northern Territory’s Trade, Business and Innovation Department said in a statement it was thrilled to adopt the technology.
The firm is also speaking with a big miner and several major door handle manufacturers about additional applications.
Copper had been making inroads into the health care sector after trials in hospitals in recent years.
However, attempts by fabricators in Japan, South Korea and Taiwan to sell copper alloy products into the sector resulted in only a modest take-up, partly due to costs, said John Fennell, CEO of the International Copper Association Australia.
“We are seeing outcrops of people adopting this, but not as much as you would have thought,” he said.
COVID-19 looks set to give the metal a boost.
In Chile, the country’s mines minister recently touted the use of copper in face masks, while US miner Freeport McMoRan believes the pandemic will shine a light on how copper can help improve public health.
“Copper’s use in health care equipment and facilities and in public places will undoubtedly grow significantly when the cost of copper, which has been a barrier in the past, is measured by the enormous cost to society that is being brought on by this pandemic,” Freeport CEO Richard Adkerson told a briefing last week.
New manufacturing techniques like 3D printing are also a potential game-changer as they can allow ultra-thin coatings to be applied quickly, while still taking advantage of copper’s antimicrobial properties and cutting the amount of metal used, and therefore the cost.