Think of a security-checkpoint scanner for airline luggage, but instead of peering into items with X-rays as they slide past, the device zaps them with intense ultraviolet light to kill any traces of the coronavirus.

Such a machine is the brainchild of Kevin Roche, who owns Saco Industrial Innovation Center and an investment firm. He used to operate a company that made equipment for food manufacturers, and one of his specialties was conveyor belts for commercial operations.

Coronavirus zapper

Prototype of an ultraviolet light device developed by Kevin Roche of Saco Industrial Innovation Center that that can be fed items to be disinfected by conveyor belt. Photo courtesy of Saco Industrial Innovation Center

So this year, when he was approached by a company that asked him to host lab space for an operation that would use UV light to disinfect masks, gloves and other personal protective equipment, Roche decided to put his experience to use by making a prototype of a coronavirus disinfection device that utilizes a conveyor belt running under a UV light.

“We basically Frankensteined an old oven,” he said.

That prototype is now at the Biddeford Regional Center of Technology, where it will be used to disinfect items at the vocational education center. Roche expects the center will use the device daily to disinfect tools and other items that students and instructors use regularly to make sure the coronavirus isn’t accidentally transmitted.

Roche said his prototype, which is about 4 feet long and 2 feet wide, is able to process items quickly and safely, and would be a good fit for schools, medical facilities, large employers, restaurants, hotels and motels – places with a large number of items that need daily disinfecting and would benefit from being able to run them through the machine quickly.

The device could become as commonplace as metal detectors, Roche said, and it is able to safely disinfect electronic objects, such as cellphones. They could be placed at the entrances to heavily trafficked buildings, he said, similar to X-ray scanners at airports and public buildings.

Roche’s effort got a boost this week from the Maine Technology Institute, which awarded his company a $25,000 initial phase grant.

The prototype will be left at the Biddeford center until October, Roche said, at which time he and the partners who helped him build it – Erik Goodwin, who previously worked with Holman Cooking Equipment and Belleco, and Louis Waterhouse, who owns L.A.W. Calibration in Saco – will review its performance, possibly with help from the University of New Hampshire, which operates a UV lab.

Among the many factors to look at, Roche said, are how much coronavirus it kills and whether there are adverse effects to using a band of ultraviolet light called UVC, which kills bacteria and viruses by destroying the molecular bonds that hold their DNA together. UVC light is routinely used to decontaminate surgical equipment. But long-term exposure can cause skin cancer in humans. Ultraviolet light emitted by the sun is what causes sunburns.

Roche said a key focus in developing the machine is to make sure that an operator isn’t exposed to the waves.

He’s also trying to determine the impact of the waves on materials, so users know which items can go through the disinfecting and which should be avoided. For instance, he said, UV light can be used to disinfect face masks, but the rubber elastics that go around the ears can be very quickly damaged and weakened by the treatment.

“That’s the problem in this COVID world – you think of one thing, but that hurts another,” he said, so those impacts need to be assessed.

According to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, UV light is known to be effective at disinfecting air and surfaces against many germs and viruses, although studies of its effect on the novel coronavirus are ongoing. Still, UV lamps already are being added to indoor ventilation systems with the intent of killing coronavirus in aerosol particles.

Roche said he’d like to source as many parts as possible for his devices from Maine and eventually make the products in Saco. He said an early estimate puts the cost at $5,000 to $10,000 per machine.

If he’s able to make about 50 a day, he said, that would likely mean creating 25 to 50 manufacturing jobs, plus some engineering and sales jobs.

The device has a name, but Roche said he’s still ironing out details on that, such as a trademark, so he’s not ready to disclose it. And while he’s likely to have a design patent on the device, Roche said he wouldn’t be surprised or particularly upset if another manufacturer decided to put together a similar device. The need, and the market, are large, he said.

Even if the coronavirus is beaten by a vaccine, Roche said, there still could be a market for disinfecting items to help contain seasonal flu outbreaks. He foresees a time when children arriving at school will put their hats, gloves, coats and backpacks through a UV device to disinfect them, and the daily ritual will become as routine as a stop at a locker for textbooks and notebooks.

“We think every school should have one, and every hospital,” he said. “We think the demand is there.”


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