Materials scientists work on the semiconductors that could transform how we disinfect surfaces, spaces, personal protective equipment — even the air we breathe
By James Badham
Thursday, June 25, 2020
The COVID-19 outbreak brought with it an almost immediate and unprecedented national shortage of personal protective gear needed by health-care workers and others seeking to prevent the spread of the virus. N95 masks intended for single use by front-line health workers were being cleaned and reused. Questions arose: Were they clean? Were they safe? Were they still effective?
As cases of COVID-19 spiked wherever large groups breathed recirculated air in closed spaces, such as ships, hospitals, churches and prisons, it became ever clearer that solutions are needed to disinfect masks for reuse, as well as to decontaminate shared surfaces and spaces and neutralize the virus in recirculated air.
UV lights — those emitting in the very short, ultraviolet, wavelengths — are promising on both counts. Already, some jails and prisons are using robots topped by a cylindrical bank of UV lights to decontaminate cells and shared spaces, such as dining halls. UV light damages human skin and eyes, so the rooms are emptied before the robots go through, sanitizing everything in them.
For the past 20 years, the Solid State Lighting and Energy Electronics Center (SSLEEC) in UC Santa Barbara’s College of Engineering has been a world leader in developing powerful and energy-efficient solid-state LED lighting. Smaller SSLEEC research efforts over the past 15 years have centered on developing LEDs that emit in ultraviolet wavelengths of 200-280 nanometers (UVC), primarily with an eye toward water purification in areas of the world lacking water-treatment infrastructure. UVC lights have been used for decades by municipal water plants because they destroy the DNA of many microbes, rendering drinking water safe.