A Spanish company, founded and owned by an Engineers Ireland member, successfully tests technology that turns HVAC systems into an ally to eliminate COVID-19 in indoor environments.

A company of Spanish origin but founded and owned by Paul Gerard O'Donohoe, of Irish origin, has just successfully completed a test demonstrating that cold plasma bipolar ionisation technology is capable of removing from the air – and where ionised air sweeps surfaces – a surrogate substitute for the coronavirus (bacteriophage MS2).

The research, which has been carried out by an interdisciplinary team with specialists in microbiology and engineering and with the support of an accredited microbiology laboratory of Spain's Ministry of Defence, has been carried out in a hotel near Madrid used to house healthcare personnel.

The results suggest that this technology eliminates, in an efficient and safe way, coronavirus which is airborne in closed spaces. Results showed a 99% elimination in airborne pathogens and an 80% reduction in surface pathogens.

Ionisation technology not new

Ionisation technology is not new and has been used in the United States and other parts of the world as an air purifier, explains O'Donohoe.

However, and until recently, its effectiveness in killing off airborne pathogens, such a SARS1 and 2, has not been studied in real case scenarios with sufficient detail.

Madrid has been hit badly by COVID-19 and O'Donohoe took on the initiative to try a find a quick, biocompatible solution for eliminating an airborne spread of coronavirus.

HVAC systems can be both an ally or an enemy for the spreading of of the disease, he says. There is scientific evidence which shows the spread of coronavirus by and through the air distribution inside a HVAC building system and, if the same system is used as a vector for ionising the indoor environment, both the HVAC and the indoor ambient is cleaned of pathogens by ionisation.

Application of ionisation as a virucidal strategy

As O'Donohoe explains it is vital to characterise the air movement within the occupied space and ensure that the right concentration of ions in the air covers the complete volume and surfaces of the treated area.

The technology has been applied within a Danone dairy plant in Spain by TAYRA. It has spent years working in the HVAC field in all types of applications and has now, during this pandemic, developed studies on the application of ionisation as a virucidal strategy.

Multiple initiatives are emerging from different technologies  UV lamps etc – to achieve a decontaminated air, but not all solutions have rigorous scientific studies behind them, nor do they guarantee the safety of the method when the space is occupied.

No significant economic investment required

Ionisation  says O'Donohoe, an expert HVAC design engineer and researcher  is a "simple, technology: cheap, safe and biocompatible with the presence of people". It adapts to the existing air conditioning systems and does not entail a significant economic investment.

The main advantage of this technology is that it converts existing HVAC systems (proven coronavirus vectors) into an ally which helps eliminate coronavirus in the air and on surfaces. "While the air conditioning works to heat, cool or ventilate the spaces, the air is constantly being cleaned by the ionisation," he says. 

Although the company already had previous scientific studies, the research that has just been completed is decisive, he says. O'Donohoe and his team have been confined for weeks at the Madrid hotel  where medical personnel reside, some in confinement as they were infected by coronavirus.

Simulated contaminated environment

They have converted one of the rooms to simulate an ICU taking into account the physical limitations, with a manikin patient and a respiratory system included, and where tests have been carried out by introducing the coronavirus substitute  the bacteriophage MS2 with characteristics similar to those of the coronavirus  into the environment.

"We have worked in a simulated contaminated environment," says O'Donohoe, and who praises the altruism of the team (they have not received any financial aid) and have worked side by side with infected people, patients and medical staff.

Technically, ionisation involves applying an electric field to the air so that positive and negative ions are generated. He explains: "Ions attack the virus membrane leaving its RNA exposed to oxidation, inactivating it." He points out that studies have proven that the virus is airborne and that HVAC systems promote its spread.

The installation is simple and its applications are numerous: hospitals, shops, public buildings, residential and industrial sectors, etc. He adds that the technology can also be used in the transport sector  in buses, trains and aircraft.

"The bottom line is that this system removes the virus from the air, surfaces, and even masks," he says. He regrets that, in many cases, proposals are unveiled without scientific rigour: "People are afraid and we must give them safe solutions, and not supposed miracles."