As the economy comes out of hibernation, employers are rushing to keep jobs safe with rudimentary aids such as hand sanitizers, face masks, and using stairs instead of elevators. However, engineers are developing more radical technologies to keep the virus away from offices.
The major challenges that the virus poses indoors are the accumulation of particles on surfaces and the air flow between individuals. "Pandemics like this can give creative minds fertile ground to think about how to do things differently," said Shaun Fitzgerald, visiting professor at the University of Cambridge.
However, many of the innovations will not be cheap. Here are some of the new options:
Viruses and bacteria can survive on surfaces for a long time and are persistent against cleaning. The new type of corona virus can live up to 72 hours on plastics and steel, for example.
In contrast, silver and copper are known to kill viruses and bacteria within four hours. But "the time frame we need is seconds to minutes and it has to be built into the materials," says Felicity de Cogan, a research associate at the University of Birmingham.
She is also the founder of NitroPep, a company that develops layers of material with tiny spikelet-like particles that pierce and kill viruses in minutes.
The NitroPep spikes are tiny antimicrobial agents that can be added to desks, walls and other surfaces and break open everything with a membrane that lands on them.
"It doesn't require a change in behavior, it just sits there and kills everything that ends up on it," said Ms. de Cogan. The spines cannot be felt by anyone who runs their hand over the surface.
The technology has not been tested for corona virus, but when piloted on a Royal Navy ship for a year, it removed more than 95 percent of bacteria such as E. coli and MRSA that are resistant to many forms of antibiotics. It remains to be seen how effectively the technology will kill viruses like Sars-Cov-2 that cause Covid-19.
If Ms. de Cogan is found effective for the novel corona virus, she will try to attach the microscopic spikes to handles and seats in public transport and use them for self-cleaning protective equipment.
Although the exact pricing has not been set, the technology has been designed to be "very economical so that it can be used as widely as possible," said Ms. de Cogan.
Some experts have reservations. "We will not be able to cover every product and material that we touch with self-cleaning surfaces," said Joseph Gardner Allen, assistant professor at Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health.
Germicidal ultraviolet radiation
The corona virus has breathed new life into a decade-old technology known as "germicidal ultraviolet" – UV light rays that kill microorganisms by tearing RNA into viruses and DNA into bacteria and fungi.
It already has a track record: During a series of drug-resistant tuberculosis outbreaks in the 1980s, researchers found that attaching UV lamps to the ceiling of large rooms effectively stopped the transmission of the disease.
It is particularly recommended in crowded and poorly ventilated environments such as food factories, warehouses and airports.
Corona virus has even increased the demand for UV disinfection robots. The Danish company UVD Robots was the first to invent these machines, which move around buildings and emit UV light, causing bacteria and viruses to be damaged to function. As of this month, the robots, which will be sold for around 60,000 euros, can already be found in hospitals, hotels, offices and airports around the world, including London's Heathrow.
However, there are real concerns about UV radiation, which causes skin and eye damage in humans. That means it has to be placed high up and enclosed in lights or air conditioners, while the robots are programmed to work only at night when nobody is around.
Monitoring the pulse of a building
There are already real-time environmental monitors that “check” the pulse of a building, for example to evaluate the CO2 content. They can be re-tuned to focus on the virus.
Some researchers in Switzerland are trying to develop sensors that recognize the virus itself. Researchers in the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (ETH Zurich) and the Swiss Laboratories for Materials Science and Technology (Empa) have developed a sensor set in a chamber that emits a light signal when it comes into contact with the RNA of the virus.
Testing in real environments – including hospitals, train stations and shopping centers – will begin in the next few months.
Ventilation is the key
While high-tech solutions may be promising, some engineers argue that the cost of implementation and the speed of delivery mean that the focus should now be on simpler upgrades to existing systems. The most important are heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems
They can play a key role in preventing the build-up of tiny microdroplets in the air known as "aerosols". In many cases, however, there is room for improvement. The minimum ventilation amount is usually 5-10 liters of fresh air per person per second, but some buildings can only have 1 liter per person per second.
Many ventilation systems also circulate air from one interior to another, increasing the risk of infection in the air. Instead, wherever possible, every room has to be 100 percent pumped up with outside air, say engineers.
“They always want the air to move from clean to dirty and then to the outside. The bathroom should go into the bathroom from inside and then out through the exhaust, ”said Allen.
Wirth Research, based in Oxford and founded by Nick Wirth, a former Formula 1 technical director, is developing a system to destroy airborne particles from some of the least ventilated spaces – particularly passenger elevators and airplanes.
Cool indoor air is circulated from the room into a "virus oven" where it is heated to more than 95 ° C to kill pathogens, then cooled and filtered again. Mr. Wirth estimates that installing the system in a small space like an elevator would cost several thousand pounds.
Heating and then cooling air is quite energy intensive, but Mr. Wirth argues that it will be important to ensure the safety of some of the most stagnant environments.