Skip to main content Skip to footer

May 30, 2024

Meet the new virus slayer

Taking cues from nature, researchers have developed a new way to stop viruses by piercing them with nano-scale spikes.

In the news

When you want to avoid catching a virus, what typical actions come to mind? Maybe washing your hands thoroughly, wiping down countertops and doorknobs, and avoiding people who are already sick? A breakthrough could add a surprising arrow to the quiver: a silicon material whose microscopically spiky surface pops viruses like a balloon.

An international research team led by the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology (RMIT) has designed and manufactured a virus-killing silicon surface aimed at reducing the spread of disease in hospitals, labs and other high-risk environments.

The idea is as straightforward as it is ingenious. The surface’s nanospikes skewer virus particles as they make contact, according to the researchers. As the virus is pierced, it’s damaged enough to prevent it from reproducing.  

In lab tests, the surface material eliminated 96% of hPIV-3 viruses (which cause pneumonia and croup)—a percentage high enough to prevent infection among healthy populations.

As you might expect, this seemingly simple concept is anything but when put into practice. Silicon wafers start out smooth and are bombarded with ions to remove material. This creates a surface full of needles that are two nanometers thick—30,000 times thinner than a human hair—and 290 nanometers high.

To the naked eye, the resulting material “looks like a flat-black mirror,” one scientist on the RMIT team says, “but actually has tiny spikes specifically designed to kill viruses.”

The Cognizant take

The study of mechanical methods of controlling viruses and other pathogenic micro-organisms is inspired by the natural world; dragonflies and cicadas, to name two, have wings with nanoscale spikes that can pierce bacteria and fungi. Who knew?

There’s urgency in developing a mechanical means of fighting viruses: the increase in antimicrobial resistance to drugs. It occurs, according to the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, “when germs like bacteria and fungi develop the ability to defeat the drugs designed to kill them. Resistant infections can be difficult, and sometimes impossible, to treat.” As recently as 2019, the CDC says, antimicrobial resistance killed 1.27 million worldwide.

A key challenge for the RMIT research team was that viruses are an order of magnitude smaller than bacteria. As a result, the spikes of the silicon materials need to be correspondingly smaller, not to mention manufacturable. Executing on that task fell to the Melbourne Center for Nanofabrication.

Researchers say producing nanostructured surfaces at scale, and cost-effectively enough to be practical in medical or industrial applications, remains a challenge. However, recent advances in nanofabrication technology show promise.

With more than a million deaths caused by antimicrobial resistance, that can only be good news.

Tech to Watch Blog
Cognizant’s weekly blog
Headshot of Digitally Cognizant author Tech to Watch

Understand the transformative impact of emerging technologies on the world around us as they address our most significant global challenges.

Latest posts

Related posts

Subscribe for more and stay relevant

The Modern Business newsletter delivers monthly insights to help your business adapt, evolve, and respond—as if on intuition