AF technology could help fight virus, disease spread in buildings

  • Published
  • By Breanne Humphreys
  • AFIMSC Public Affairs

TYNDALL AIR FORCE BASE, Fla. – An Air Force invention could be key to reducing the amount of airborne microbes — like viruses, bacteria and mold spores — inside buildings and homes.

In 2009, the U.S. Air Force submitted a patent application for an invention that coats surfaces with a protective finish, killing toxins on contact. The technology, which was granted a patent in 2013, was invented by Dr. Jeff Owens, a senior chemist with the Air Force Civil Engineer Center, to support his work in chemical and biological warfare defense. 

Today, the Air Force is licensing the rights to that technology to a private-sector company called Theriax, LLC that wants to use Owens’ patented formula in paints and other products.

“The patented technology is essentially an additive that can be incorporated into coatings for surfaces and textiles to protect against bioaerosols like viruses, bacteria and mold,” Owens said. “Theriax wants to bring that technology to the commercial market in paint.”

Under a Cooperative Research and Development Agreement, Florida-based Theriax is collaborating with members of the Civil Engineer Laboratory at Tyndall to develop next-generation coatings that deactivate biological and chemical weapons for the Air Force. 

The partnership provides a mutually beneficial opportunity for the company to develop a commercial paint product that the Air Force could one day use to improve quality of life and health for Airmen and their families on base, Owens said.

"We know the free additive deactivates black mold, influenza and staphylococcus aureus, the causative organism for Methicillin-resistant infections,” Owens said. “Theriax will use our facility to test how it holds up in paint against a viral simulant and then influenza.” 

While not a formal assessment, Bruce Salter, a senior research scientist supporting AFCEC and technical advisor to Theriax, said they've seen the paint work within the walls of the CE Lab — literally. 

Mold growth is a regular challenge for coastal installations, but after the destruction of Hurricane Michael in October 2018, the CE Lab, like many base buildings that remained intact, required hefty cleanup and a fresh coat of paint. Salter said the research team used the antimicrobial paint on one wall. The wall remained mold free for six months before the paint needed a recharge.

“Over time the disinfectant charge wears off and the paint needs to be recharged by wiping down the treated surface with a disinfectant,” Salter said. “The recharge frequency is largely dependent on the environmental conditions.” 

The partnership that began before Hurricane Michael is now focused on how its research can help in the fight against COVID-19.

“Our partnership and our work is now significantly motivated by COVID-19 as we continue to use the Air Force’s technology to create more products with coatings for disease control,” said Steve Ribich, Theriax chief executive officer.

In addition to conducting more control tests of the additive as a preservative and antimicrobial in paint, Ribich’s company will do the legwork for commercialization — obtaining regulatory approval and identifying manufacturing and distribution partners.

Ribich praised the expertise and innovation of the Air Force scientists.

“They work through and around any problems, and are a safe pair of hands,” Ribich said of Owens and Salter. “They have a mindset that will attack any problem. I can’t speak more highly of them.”

While Owens and the other AFCEC scientists remain focused on mission applications of the technology, Owens acknowledged that commercially available products, like paint, would indirectly support the Air Force mission.

“If COVID-19 has taught us anything, it’s that reducing exposure pathways and lowering the concentration of infectious aerosols inside a room is critical to controlling disease spread,” Owens said. “This paint isn’t a magic bullet, but it could be one tool that helps makes a difference in the fight to protect human health.”