University of South Florida


USF engineer and biologist unite to fight coronavirus with corona discharge

A chart showing the sterilization process for N95 masks

An interdisciplinary team of scientists from the University of South Florida has advanced efforts to establish a novel technology that can rapidly sterilize and electrostatically recharge N95 respiratory masks to restore their original filtration efficiency. Wearing masks prevents the transmission of microdroplets, effectively protecting people from infection. Due to the national and worldwide shortage during the coronavirus pandemic, the masks are continuing to be reused. USF researchers caution against that as most sterilization methods, such as steaming or applying disinfectants, can dramatically decrease a mask’s effectiveness, which is essential to protect front line workers.

N95 Mask

The National Science Foundation has awarded a $167,568 RAPID grant to Ying Zhong, assistant professor of mechanical engineering, and Libin Ye, assistant professor of biological sciences. The grant supports efforts to advance their sterilization technology designed to fight coronavirus, by using corona discharge, low-temperature atmospheric pressure plasma. The technology works by simultaneously deactivating pathogens on a mask and restoring its electrostatic charges. Zhong and Ye are also developing handheld surface screening devices to sterilize homes, hospitals and other public areas, such as restaurants, schools and public transportation.

“We hope portable corona screening devices can provide a safe solution for effective sterilization, instead of repeatedly utilizing large amounts of disinfectants,” Zhong said. “Developing an efficient, sustainable and affordable solution for everyone to have access to and to protect more people is what we, researchers, feel responsible to do in a pandemic like this.”

Ying Zhong

Ying Zhong, assistant professor of mechanical engineering

Libin Ye

Libin Ye, assistant professor of biological sciences

The team has proven the technology can kill 10,000 E. coli bacteria in less than a minute with a single-needle model. They say they have the potential to sterilize even more pathogens in less time if more needles or wires are built into the device. USF is collaborating with a lab at the University of California San Diego to validate the technology’s effectiveness against SARS-CoV-2.

“It is exciting to see corona can kill coronavirus,” Ye said. “The application of this technology will transform the way we disinfect for public health purposes in a more convenient and effective manner.”

The researchers have filed for a provisional patent on the technology and are working toward FDA approval. They’re currently collaborating with a medical device design company to turn their prototypes into products that cost less than $50. Zhong and Ye hope to soon make them available to hospitals and the general public. With low power output and no heat emission, the corona treatment is safe to operate.

This technology is also one of 14 projects to receive initial funding from the University of South Florida COVID-19 Rapid Response Research Grants program. The program is designed to help USF researchers quickly scale up their projects while seeking longer-term federal research support through the recently passed CARES Act and other sources. The USF Office of Research and Innovation is expected to soon announce a second round of projects to receive funding.

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