Researchers Outside Medicine Have a New Focus: Covid-19

Engineers, physicists, volcanologists and others who never dreamed they would work on a deadly pandemic are now part of the global effort to understand and contain the coronavirus

Rajat Mittal spent a decade exploring how our larynxes generate sound and the physics behind blood flow. Now the fluid dynamics expert is wholly absorbed in a new scientific quest: to understand how droplets of moisture spread the new coronavirus from person to person.

“It seems to intersect with everything I’ve trained for all my professional life,” he said.

Researchers who never dreamed they would be working on responses to a deadly pandemic are redirecting their expertise to the global effort to understand and contain Covid-19. While virologists and epidemiologists pore over the new coronavirus and the disease itself, other experts are focused on critical questions about managing society as governments world-wide ease restrictions on daily life to revive comatose economies.

Engineers are helping public-health officials figure out how transmission of the virus can be suppressed in mass-transit systems, office blocks and theme parks. Academics who have learned how to make snap judgments on life-or-death decisions are drawing up advice for policy makers.

An algorithm tuned to air pollution is being repurposed to track social distancing. A team at the University of California, Irvine, is researching whether components from Blu-ray video players can be used as ultraviolet lasers to disinfect surfaces.

“There’s a buzz about, what can thinking minds do about it?” said Mr. Mittal, a professor of mechanical engineering at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, whose focus now is on designing more effective face masks. “How can I take what I know and turn it around and use it to attack this disease?”

The mobilization comes as restrictions on daily life ease around the globe, prodding policy makers to seek out a wider set of experts to shape the post-Covid world than the epidemiologists who have dominated so far.

“It would be nice to have a little bit more of a balanced perspective,” said Mark Birkin, co-director of the Leeds Institute for Data Analytics in the U.K., who is building a computer model that aims to show how loosening lockdown measures affects social interactions.

The new coronavirus has infected more than five million people world-wide and killed more than 340,000, according to the World Health Organization. The stringent measures restricting work and travel imposed by governments to stop its spread have cratered the global economy. The International Monetary Fund expects the world economy to contract by 3% this year, led by record-breaking falls in output in the U.S. and Europe.

With the disease better contained, although not eliminated, governments are easing lockdowns to get people back to work. But absent a vaccine or widespread immunity to infection, that revival poses a multitude of challenges around how people can safely interact at schools, offices and factories without inadvertently giving the virus a chance to proliferate again.

Such questions are prompting experts from diverse fields to drop what they were doing and refocus on Covid-19.

Until recently, James Walsh was fine-tuning a complex computer model to map air pollution in London. Now the researcher at the London-based Alan Turing Institute is working on models to determine whether people are respecting social-distancing rules aimed at limiting transmission of the virus.

“It’s never really been my expertise to work in anything relating to biological viruses or anything of that form,” said Mr. Walsh.

Michael Batty, a professor of planning at University College London, has been building computer models of cities since the 1970s, figuring out such things as how to keep people moving if a subway line breaks down. Now he wonders whether our cities and buildings will need to be redesigned altogether.

“Nobody has ever looked at a situation where everything breaks,” he said. Mr. Batty is coordinating research sponsored by the U.K.’s Royal Society looking into how people arrive at, move within, and exit small spaces such as railway stations and supermarkets, with the goal of figuring out ways to keep people safe.

A preliminary concern: One-way systems to steer shoppers around grocery aisles may not be the right answer, since some evidence suggests it keeps people inside stores longer, raising the likelihood of close contact with others, he said.

Jessica Fanzo, professor of global food and agricultural policy and ethics at Johns Hopkins, is racing to figure out how the pandemic is affecting food supplies in low-income countries. “It is a moment to pause and figure out how we can readjust and make for a more resilient world,” she said.

The eruption of Covid-19 in China last year has triggered a flood of research that continues to pour online and fill the pages of scientific journals world-wide. Doctors and disease experts are still trying to pin down exactly how lethal the virus is, figure out how many people have had it, and come up with a vaccine. For every robust finding adding to our understanding of the bug, there are dozens of questionable claims spreading on social media. Policy makers are under pressure to act quickly despite the uncertainty.

Willy Aspinall, emeritus professor of volcanology at the University of Bristol, learned how to synthesize expert judgments using advanced statistical techniques during two decades advising ministers on the Caribbean island of Montserrat about the risks of a volcanic eruption. He believes such techniques could help policy makers feel their way through the next, uncertain stages of the pandemic with better advice, and is piloting a study looking at reopening schools.

“People are looking over their shoulder and asking, ‘What the hell can volcanologists tell us?’ Actually, we’ve got quite extensive experience managing scientific uncertainty in decision support,” he said.

Such unexpected links between public health and other fields are popping up again and again.

Michael Kinzel, assistant professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering at the University of Central Florida, is working on a cough drop that alters saliva to prevent the formation of the fine aerosolized droplets that transfer the virus from an infected person deep into the lungs of a new victim. A postdoctoral colleague in the project has been sniffing pepper in isolation to induce sneezes as part of the research.

The idea came to him after his wife, a virologist, in a Facebook argument with neighbors, explained this method of transmission. In a lifetime spent poring over aircraft design, he knew a lot about making liquid fuels into fine particles to better ignite in a jet engine. “What we’re doing is the exact opposite,” he said.

Mr. Kinzel sees in the pandemic the promise of one of those rare moments when cross-pollination between academic fields leads to big leaps in knowledge. “It helps force people to look outside the box,” he said.

Read the full Wall Street Journal article.

Blue-ray disc lasers could help kill the coronavirus, according to UC Irvine researchers

Not only can Blu-ray lasers replay the “Harry Potter” series 50 times over, they may possibly help kill the coronavirus.

UC Irvine researchers are investigating whether the lasers inside Blu-ray players can be used as a disinfectant to fight the spread of the deadly virus.

UCI professor Chris Barty, who is leading the research team, envisions lasers in ventilation systems disinfecting the air, lasers as small as a key fob that could be used to sanitize hands and lasers built into face masks that clean the air as it filters through.

“You can imagine many many ways you could deploy the technology if it’s cheap enough,” Barty said.

When combined with special crystals, the Blu-ray lasers can convert to UVC light, which has been shown to be effective at eliminating microbes. UVC has been used in the past to kill germs, including by hospitals. But Barty’s method may be much more efficient and cost-effective.

Barty said Blu-ray disc lasers have to be high quality because they need to read a lot of information in the disc player.

“If we can get the 10% to 20% conversion of the Blu-ray light into UVC, then this is really very different than what the current methods of generation are,” Barty said. “Factors of 10 to 100 more output per dollar.”

Hospitals currently use robots to sterilize rooms but in addition to UVC, they also give off UVA and UVB lights, which are dangerous for humans. Barty said the rooms have to be cleared before the robot can begin sterilizing.

Though UVC light is powerful, Barty said the tears in a person’s eyes and dead skin cells are enough to absorb and protect people from the harmful light rays.

The lasers his team is working on could be a cost-effective alternative for hospitals.

“You won’t need a $100,000 robot then to clean your hospital,” Barty said.

Barty’s team is made up of five graduate students, two undergraduates and one post-doctoral student. The group is currently waiting on all the parts to arrive before they can get fully started on the study. They do have some of the laser diodes, but it will take a month or so for the crystals to arrive.

“Some time in midsummer, we are going to be generating UVC,” Barty said.

There are currently several companies online selling UV light wands, claiming they can sterilize surfaces better than other sources, though Barty said the products aren’t very powerful. It would take several minutes of exposure to sterilize a cell phone.

“You have to have enough light to be useful and in an economic range that makes sense for wide deployment,” Barty said.

Read full Daily Pilot article.

UCI physicists say Blu-ray diode lasers could be used to help sterilize COVID-19

Physicists at the University of California Irvine said the next weapon against COVID-19 may be sitting in your home inside your Blu-ray Disc player. Chris Barty, a professor of physics and astronomy at UCI, is leading the research. “The Blu-ray diode laser itself, the one that’s in your player, doesn’t kill the virus, doesn’t sterilize the virus. But modifying it with non-linear optics, with something that laser people do, would allow to create light that does kill the virus,” Barty said.

Watch ABC7 News broadcast.

Physicists exploring use of Blu-ray disc lasers to kill COVID-19, other viruses

A new weapon in the arsenal against the coronavirus may be sitting in your home entertainment console. A team led by physicist Chris Barty of the University of California, Irvine is researching the use of diodes from Blu-ray digital video disc devices as deep-ultraviolet laser photon sources to rapidly disinfect surfaces and the indoor air that swirls around us.

Barty, UCI Distinguished Professor of physics & astronomy, said that such UV light sterilizers would be cheap compared to current medical- and scientific-grade systems and that it’d be possible to deploy them almost anywhere.

“If these sources are successful, I think you could build them into a mask and clean the air that’s coming in and out of you,” he said. “Or you could set these things up in the air circulation ducts of major buildings, and the airflow that goes through could be sterilized.”

They could also function in hand-held wand devices, Barty said, or as a “light curtain” through which people walk as they enter a room, exposing them to UV-C radiation. He noted that at this wavelength – between 200 and 260 nanometers – UV radiation will destroy viruses and other pathogens but poses minimal risk to humans.

“There is evidence to suggest that the UV-C band is actually not an issue for us, especially at the shorter wavelengths, because it gets absorbed by dead skin cells or by a teardrop on your eye,” said Barty, head of UCI’s Convergent Optical Sciences Initiative.

“Hospitals use UV-emitting robots that are about the size of a dorm room refrigerator. They just wheel them in and plug them into the wall to sterilize the place, but everybody has to leave because in addition to UV-C, they make a lot of UV-A and UV-B, which can cause harm to humans.”

The cost of these roaming hospital sterilizers – that are based on high-current mercury discharge lamps – is too high for deployment at the scale that may be needed to combat the coronavirus, present everywhere from cruise ships to meatpacking plants. Barty said that Blu-ray diode lasers offer a potential path to a compact, economical solution, since the technology is ubiquitous and priced in the range of tens of dollars per unit.

His team is developing a way to halve the wavelength of photons emitted by Blu-ray diodes – which is around 405 nanometers – to the germicidal UV-C band.

“This is really more of an applied physics versus a pure physics view of the world,” he said. “The issue is not whether you can make UV-C light. It’s whether you can fundamentally reduce the dollar-per-watt output of a device to a place that it becomes compelling to use UV-C light.”

According to Barty, Blu-ray sterilizers could be made in the “same kind of quantities as you can make other telecommunications components, so you could really change the game.”

Looking at the current landscape, in which there’s an all-hands-on-deck effort to develop vaccines to prevent COVID-19 infections and drugs to treat people sick with the virus, Barty observed: “I would prefer that we just destroy it.”

This project and many other currently active UCI-based initiatives to confront the coronavirus are being tracked at https://oc-covid19.org.

Read the full article on phys.org.

Lumitron Technologies: Building the X-ray of the Future

INNOVATION: LASER-BASED FIRM LANDS IN IRVINE, RAISES $34M TO FIGHT CANCER

A 30-person company in the heart of Irvine plans to commercialize a new type of X-ray platform, one that it calls the biggest breakthrough in the imaging industry since the X-ray was invented in 1895.

Lumitron Technologies Inc. is developing products for medical and industrial imaging, with a stated goal of building its first commercial imaging system by the end of the year.

The technology that Lumitron is using is built upon nearly 20 years of federally funded research totaling $220 million.

The 7-year-old company recently completed a $34 million Founder’s round of financing with backers including Newport Beach’s Roth Capital Partners; it expects it to be the only round of private capital before bringing the technology to market.

Among the many possibilities for the technology, Chief Executive and Chief Technology Officer Chris Barty said his mission for the company is to “find, detect and treat cancer in ways that no one has been able to do before.”

Barty said other potential uses of the company’s imaging products include certification for additive manufacturing parts.

1,000x

X-ray machines today are largely made the same way as they were first discovered.

Barty explained, “You take electrons and slam ‘em into metal. As the x-rays pass through the body, dense structures like bones absorb the X-ray beam and produce a shadow to show you your broken rib.”

Lumitron’s HyperView platform, on the other hand, uses a new type of high-energy light source (called a laser-Compton) to recreate the power of a synchrotron device—a particle acceleration machine about the size of a football field that speeds up electrons to nearly the speed of light—in a device the size of a modern CT scanner.

The synchrotron was invented in 1945 and uses magnets to accelerate particles. Due to its large size and half-billion-dollar price tag, it’s not a commercially scalable invention.

There are currently 60 in existence around the world and scientists typically get one week out of a year to conduct studies using the device.

“It’s a common story,” Barty said. “There are a number of studies conducted on synchrotrons that are very compelling from a medical perspective, but completely impractical from a clinical perspective because it takes a year to get time on a synchrotron.”

Lumitron’s product offers the same capabilities in a much smaller and more cost efficient device, providing up to 1,000 times the resolution of a traditional X-ray machine while producing significantly less harmful dose to the patient.

Barty said, by way of example, that if you were looking at a view of the Golden Gate Bridge from Marin County (about 30 miles north of the bridge), and magnified it by 1,000 times, you could see the stitching of a Bentley logo on the seat inside of a car, while it was driving along the bridge.

He added, “From that perspective, when you start talking about medical applications—it’s really a very transformational event.”

Research Possibilities

Because its platform can see down to the cellular level, the possibilities for cancer discovery and treatment using the HyperView platform are particularly compelling, according to the company.

For example, “There’s a debate right now about the screening process [for mammograms] and whether it prevents or causes cancer because of the exposure to radiation,” Barty explained.

He continued, “With our device, the radiation dose is 100 times lower, so you’d have to get 100 more mammograms for it to be an issue.”

Lumitron’s device would also make the experience more comfortable for women and increase the likelihood of accurate results over time, because the machine doesn’t depend on a technician placing metal plates around the area of the body that needs an X-ray.

In addition to reduced risk for cancer screenings, Lumitron’s platform offers treatment options for cancer patients.

Currently, oncologists treat cancer by adding a radioactive element to a drug, which attaches to cancer cells via proteins that it creates as it grows in the body.

The problem with this type of treatment is twofold: the radiation is known to accumulate elsewhere, like the lymph nodes and pituitary glands, and once the cancer is gone, the radiation doesn’t just leave the body.

The HyperView platform is designed to identify any element on the periodic table and use non-radioactive elements such as gold to detect and treat cancer—without introducing radioactive elements or ever moving the human body, according to Barty.

Other applications include mining rare earth metals—such as the materials needed to power rechargeable batteries in Tesla cars and other electric vehicles—and screening additive manufacturing parts for aviation and aerospace needs.

The company’s first priority is medical applications, Barty said.

National Security

Barty received his Ph.D. and M.S. degrees in applied physics from Stanford University and a bachelor’s degree in chemistry, physics and chemical engineering from North Carolina State University.

He went on to serve as faculty for Stanford University and led a research organization at the University of California-San Diego.

He then developed the core technologies for Lumitron as chief technology officer for the laser directorate of the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory (LLNL), one of three nuclear labs owned by the federal government and housed under the Department of Energy.

He initially set out to develop an X-ray system for national security, with the goal to prevent terrorists from smuggling uranium-235 into the country.

Barty is the sole inventor for about 80% of the company’s core technologies and co-creator of the additional 20%.

He met co-founder and Executive Chairman Maurie Stang through a mutual acquaintance in 2013.

Lumitron was born soon after, though it took another three years to acquire the rights to license the technology.

In 2017, Lumitron finally acquired the commercial rights to license its laser-based technology from the government and Barty departed LLNL the following year.

Medtech Corridor

Barty intended to build Lumitron near LLNL in Pleasanton.

When the University of California-Irvine came knocking, he was still set on Pleasanton for its close proximity to talent.

Then “I spent three days on a recruitment trip, and after a day and a half, it became very clear that it was better for us to build the company here, where the end user is,” Barty said.

Barty cited the UCI Chao Family Comprehensive Cancer Center, the only National Cancer Institute-designated comprehensive cancer center in OC, as one such example.

Another highlight: the university’s entrepreneurial tech-transfer branch, UCI Beall Applied Innovation.

“There isn’t an entity like Applied Innovation elsewhere,” said Barty, noting its uniqueness even compared to his alma mater Stanford.

“It’s quite remarkable, and it’s not UCI centric. It tries to view itself as a growth hub for OC,” Barty said.

He said recruitment has been a breeze for the business; the company has yet to write a job post and has found talent from both Livermore and OC’s medtech corridor.

Barty was given joint appointments at UCI’s School of Physical Sciences and School of Medicine. He also leads the Convergence Optical Sciences Initiative at the Beckman Laser Institute and Medical Clinic, which aims to commercialization optics and photonics technologies for human health.

Other local activities focused on oncology include the City of Hope campus at the Great Park Neighborhoods in Irvine, with a stated $1 billion investment.

Hoag Memorial Hospital Presbyterian is also reportedly working to expand its cancer network, and Keck Medicine of USC plans to build a new cancer clinic close to Hoag’s Newport Beach hospital (see story, page 9).

Commercial Opportunities

Lumitron isn’t worried about the technical capabilities of its platform.

Commercial activities rather hinge on the company’s ability to take enough cost out of manufacturing to reach an individual purchasing price point—something the company is working to improve and perfect, Barty said.

Once the device reaches clinical markets, it will compete with modern MRIs, which go for about $3 million today, added Barty.

Prior to regulatory approvals, the company’s first commercial markets are early adopters, hospitals and university researchers who will pay a much higher price because they value the technology for the ability to publish research papers and make discoveries.

“From that perspective, we have a very compelling value proposition,” Barty said. “If you take just 10% of the 16,000 or so research hospitals in the world, you have more than a $10 billion market.”

The company also plans to make a second device, the only difference being a higher voltage machine, for industrial purposes down the line.

Looking Ahead

Lumitron recently closed a $34.4 million Founder’s round. The round had a $150 million pre-money valuation, according to a Business Journal estimate.

Singapore-based Vickers Venture Partners led the completion of the Founder’s round. Other participants included Roth Capital, as well as Perennial Value Management and Clinton Capital, both in Australia, and several global family offices.

There were no preferred stock terms; all investors took common stock terms, said Barty.

He said the company “is pretty much done raising funds” and will look to public markets for future financing, noting that Vickers is particularly good at helping companies go public.

Lumitron’s headquarters at UCI Research Park is now in the process of expanding from 15,000 square feet to 22,000 square feet.

The extra 7,000 square feet of space, which is still moving ahead with construction, is allocated for on-site manufacturing, which the company aims to keep local and provide research access to UCI faculty and staff.

Read the full Orange County Business Journal article.

* The article above reflects corrections to the inaccuracies of the original published Orange County Business Journal article.

New UV Light Sterilizer Technology Could Rapidly Disinfect Surfaces, Indoor Air

The home entertainment console found in almost all houses could be the key to a new weapon in the battle against the coronavirus.

Led by physicist Chris Barty of the University of California, Irvine (UCI), a research team has been investigating the use of diodes from Blu-ray digital video disk devices as sources for deep-ultraviolet (UV) laser photons to quickly disinfect not just surfaces but also the indoor air around people.

According to Barty, who is a Distinguished Professor of physics and astronomy at UCI, such UV light sterilizers would be inexpensive when compared to existing medical- and scientific-grade systems and it would be possible to use them almost anywhere.

“If these sources are successful, I think you could build them into a mask and clean the air that’s coming in and out of you. Or you could set these things up in the air circulation ducts of major buildings, and the airflow that goes through could be sterilized.”

Chris Barty, Distinguished Professor of Physics and Astronomy, University of California, Irvine

In addition, they could be integrated into hand-held wand devices, stated Barty, or as a “light curtain” through which people enter a room, where they are exposed to UV-C radiation. He added that at a wavelength of 200 to 260 nm, the UV radiation will kill viruses and other pathogens with only minimal risk to humans.

There is evidence to suggest that the UV-C band is actually not an issue for us, especially at the shorter wavelengths, because it gets absorbed by dead skin cells or by a teardrop on your eye,” noted Barty, who is also the head of UCI’s Convergent Optical Sciences Initiative.

“Hospitals use UV-emitting robots that are about the size of a dorm room refrigerator. They just wheel them in and plug them into the wall to sterilize the place, but everybody has to leave because in addition to UV-C, they make a lot of UV-A and UV-B, which can cause harm to humans.”

Chris Barty, Distinguished Professor of Physics and Astronomy, University of California, Irvine

Such roaming hospital sterilizers—based on high-current mercury discharge lamps—are too expensive to be deployed at the scale required to combat the coronavirus, which exists everywhere from meatpacking plants to cruise ships. Barty noted that Blu-ray diode lasers provide a promising way to a compact, affordable solution, as the technology is versatile and costs only tens of dollars per unit.

Barty and his colleagues have been working to devise a technique to halve the wavelength of photons discharged by Blu-ray diodes—which is about 405 nm—to the germicidal UV-C band.

“This is really more of an applied physics versus a pure physics view of the world. The issue is not whether you can make UV-C light. It’s whether you can fundamentally reduce the dollar-per-watt output of a device to a place that it becomes compelling to use UV-C light.”

Chris Barty, Distinguished Professor of Physics and Astronomy, University of California, Irvine

Barty said Blu-ray sterilizers could be produced in the “same kind of quantities as you can make other telecommunications components, so you could really change the game.”

Commenting over the current scenario, where meticulous efforts are being taken to develop vaccines to prevent COVID-19 infections and drugs for the treatment of people affected by the virus, Barty noted, “I would prefer that we just destroy it.”

Read the full AZO Optics article.

ACE Member Institutions Lead the Way in Research and Technology to Fight COVID-19

​​As the COVID-19 pandemic continues, our member institutions have been contributing their expertise in research and technology to help mitigate the crisis. As ACE President Ted Mitchell wrote in The Hill, university research is key to COVID-19 breakthroughs and serving the public good. While most of the attention has focused on university labs working on vaccines, higher education’s involvement has reached into a number of other areas.

The lab initiatives are varied and diverse. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have joined forces with 75 other public health, academic, and commercial institutions, including the University of Washington, to study the COVID-19 genome and examine how the virus spread through the United States. The University of Iowa has made its large stock of laboratory-created antibodies, often used for cancer research, available for researchers trying to understand the coronavirus.

A number of ACE member institutions are looking into innovative ways to test for and treat COVID-19. Researchers in the University of California system and Stanford University are working to increase testing capacity, evaluate drugs such as remdesivir and sarilumab as potential treatments, and study the virus’ genetics. Thanks to an automated testing robot at UC Davis, the university is able to produce 400 test per day with hopes to increase to 1,400 daily tests. Tulane University has repurposed a research lab to instead test for coronavirus and is now able to process nearly 200 tests daily. And the University of California, Berkeley is among the hosts of an artificial intelligence research consortium accepting proposals on ways to combat the coronavirus.

“What we’d like to do here is to provide for a certain adventurousness. We won’t be afraid to have even a substantial fraction of the research projects fail,” said Shankar Sastry, a professor of engineering and computer science at UC Berkeley.

This research effort extends beyond the lab and into digital projects as well. A consortium of researchers from Stanford University and 11 other institutions have created N95decon.org, a website that helps filter the scientific literature on how to decontaminate and reuse N95 masks. Faculty at the University of Maryland, in collaboration with Facebook, have created a global survey to collect coronavirus data and help identify hard-hit regions and guide public health officials in their decision-making. A team of computer scientists at the University of Southern California (USC) has started work on a coronavirus contact-tracing app.

“This project is the culmination of many years of work, with many strands of research coming together to tackle a worldwide pandemic,” said Cyrus Shahabi, the chair of USC’s Department of Computer Science.

ACE Member institutions have also begun creating different technologies to address the spread of COVID-19. Doctors at Emory University have built a new online tool that helps people screen themselves for coronavirus symptoms and receive advice on next steps. Meanwhile, the online COVID-19 web tracker, designed by Johns Hopkins University researchers, has become an authoritative source for updates on coronavirus cases.

The personal protective equipment shortage has also led to some creative solutions. For example, a team of researchers at the University of Texas at Austin is currently prototyping a type of resuscitator that uses a windshield wiper motor instead of manual compression to help patients breathe. Likewise, two doctors at University of California, Irvine (UCI) have joined with the Beckman Laser Institute & Medical Clinic to build a “bridge” ventilator—a device that can be sold inexpensively, made quickly, and help relieve some of the pressure on intensive care units.

“It’s a once-in-a-generation call to arms that we all must respond to,” said UCI surgeon Brian Wong. “Our designs are different. We’re building ‘bridge’ devices that can be easily made to serve as stopgaps when medical-grade ventilators are not in full supply.”

Read the full ACE article.

UCI physicists exploring use of Blu-ray disc lasers to kill COVID-19, other viruses

Low-cost technology could be employed in hand-held devices and ventilation systems

Irvine, Calif., May 19, 2020 – A new weapon in the arsenal against the coronavirus may be sitting in your home entertainment console. A team led by physicist Chris Barty of the University of California, Irvine is researching the use of diodes from Blu-ray digital video disc devices as deep-ultraviolet laser photon sources to rapidly disinfect surfaces and the indoor air that swirls around us.

Barty, UCI Distinguished Professor of physics & astronomy, said that such UV light sterilizers would be cheap compared to current medical- and scientific-grade systems and that it’d be possible to deploy them almost anywhere.

“If these sources are successful, I think you could build them into a mask and clean the air that’s coming in and out of you,” he said. “Or you could set these things up in the air circulation ducts of major buildings, and the airflow that goes through could be sterilized.”

They could also function in hand-held wand devices, Barty said, or as a “light curtain” through which people walk as they enter a room, exposing them to UV-C radiation. He noted that at this wavelength – between 200 and 260 nanometers – UV radiation will destroy viruses and other pathogens but poses minimal risk to humans.

“There is evidence to suggest that the UV-C band is actually not an issue for us, especially at the shorter wavelengths, because it gets absorbed by dead skin cells or by a teardrop on your eye,” said Barty, head of UCI’s Convergent Optical Sciences Initiative.

“Hospitals use UV-emitting robots that are about the size of a dorm room refrigerator. They just wheel them in and plug them into the wall to sterilize the place, but everybody has to leave because in addition to UV-C, they make a lot of UV-A and UV-B, which can cause harm to humans.”

The cost of these roaming hospital sterilizers – that are based on high-current mercury discharge lamps – is too high for deployment at the scale that may be needed to combat the coronavirus, present everywhere from cruise ships to meatpacking plants. Barty said that Blu-ray diode lasers offer a potential path to a compact, economical solution, since the technology is ubiquitous and priced in the range of tens of dollars per unit.

His team is developing a way to halve the wavelength of photons emitted by Blu-ray diodes – which is around 405 nanometers – to the germicidal UV-C band.

“This is really more of an applied physics versus a pure physics view of the world,” he said. “The issue is not whether you can make UV-C light. It’s whether you can fundamentally reduce the dollar-per-watt output of a device to a place that it becomes compelling to use UV-C light.”

According to Barty, Blu-ray sterilizers could be made in the “same kind of quantities as you can make other telecommunications components, so you could really change the game.”

Looking at the current landscape, in which there’s an all-hands-on-deck effort to develop vaccines to prevent COVID-19 infections and drugs to treat people sick with the virus, Barty observed: “I would prefer that we just destroy it.”

This project and many other currently active UCI-based initiatives to confront the coronavirus are being tracked at https://oc-covid19.org.

Read the full UCI press release.

Chen awarded SPIE Optics and Photonics Education Scholarship

BELLINGHAM, Washington, USA – May 14, 2020 – Jason Chen has been awarded a 2020 Optics and Photonics Education Scholarship by SPIE, the international society for optics and photonics, for his potential contributions to the field of optics, photonics or related field.

Chen is a Ph.D. candidate in the Functional Optical Coherence Tomography Lab led by Professor Zhongping Chen at the University of California, Irvine (USA). He closely collaborates with Professors Brian Wong and Andrew Browne on developing innovative methods to functionally assess the upper airway and the eye, respectively, via optical approaches. Chen’s academic achievements are well-recognized as he is a fellow of the National Science Foundation – Graduate Research Fellowship Program and an awardee of the Student Research Grant sponsored by the American Society for Laser Medicine and Surgery.

View the SPIE 2020 Scholarship Recipients press release.

How to Make a Ventilator

…For the most part, the various open-source initiatives underway make no claims that they’re building critical-care ventilators. Govind Rajan, an anesthesiologist at UC Irvine’s medical school and a contributor to the Bridge Ventilator Consortium ventilator project, described the use-case for that project as “only in situations where you don’t have any ventilators available and the patient needs a ventilator.” In collaboration with the consortium, Virgin Orbit has designed a ventilator of the “automating-a-manual-resuscitator” variety. It’s nowhere near as complex as a critical care ventilator.

However, Rajan also described scenarios where “there comes a time when you have to be weaned off a ventilator,” and said his team’s design could serve the needs of patients who need to be weaned off and don’t need a critical-care device (i.e., acting as a “bridge” between critical care needs and being off of the ventilator). On its website, Virgin Orbit also describes the ventilator (which has still not been approved by the FDA) as potentially serving “the huge volume of patients with moderate COVID-19 symptoms.”

This seemingly contradictory description—a ventilator that’s somehow both a worst-case-scenario only option and serving an intermediate stage of COVID-19 treatment—introduces a serious medical ethics question in the drive for more ventilators. For doctors trying to save patients by any means necessary, a minimum viable ventilator is better than having no ventilator at all. Rajan recalled his own experiences when he began his career working in India 35 years ago, where ventilators were often in short supply and manual resuscitation was sometimes the only option for keeping a patient breathing. Getting to choose between the last-resort tool and a critical care device is a privilege that some doctors just don’t have right now…

Read more of the Vice article.