IAA cosmic dust laboratory reinvents itself to study the detection of coronavirus on surfaces

The Institute of Astrophysics of Andalusia (IAA-CSIC) is involved in a project financed by the Carlos III Health Institute for the development of a prototype to analyze surfaces contaminated by SARS-CoV-2. The IAA will contribute with polarimetry studies to the project, which already combines image acquisition in the entire optical and sub-millimeter range and its analysis with artificial intelligence



A month ago, a project launched by researchers from different Andalusian institutions started to design a prototype capable of detecting the SARS-CoV-2 virus on surfaces of different materials using existing optical technologies combined with artificial intelligence (AI). The project, funded by the Carlos III Health Institute, under the Ministry of Science and Innovation, has added this week as new partner the Institute of Astrophysics of Andalusia (IAA-CSIC) through its Cosmic Dust Laboratory (CODULAB).

CODULAB is an experimental laboratory that studies how dust particles scatter light, something essential for studying planetary atmospheres, the envelope of gas and dust that surrounds the nucleus of comets or the discs where planets form. It has also studied dust samples produced by volcanic eruptions or displaced by large dust storms on our planet, and is now being adapted to detect viruses on different types of surfaces.

"To begin with we are going to work with a laser that emits a wavelength of the order of the size of the virus, that way its detection will be easier. In addition, we are adapting the optical train to be able to study surfaces instead of the cosmic dust clouds we usually work with", says Olga Muñoz, IAA-CSIC researcher who coordinates the laboratory.

The project to which the IAA-CSIC researchers join, and which is led by the Interdisciplinary Physics Group of the Department of Applied Physics III of the ETS of Engineering of the University of Seville, responds to the current lack of methods for the detection and visualization of the virus on surfaces. Its objective is to develop a portable prototype that would combine multispectral image reading systems, both in the optical range (from ultraviolet to thermal infrared) and in the terahertz range, methods of analysis using computational optics and artificial intelligence (machine learning).

This would allow rapid, contactless analysis of contaminated areas by generating spatial distribution maps in the device's field of view. It will also help cleaning and decontaminating medical devices and facilities and reducing infection by contact.

"With the entry of CODULAB in the project, polarimetry is added to the different optical techniques that are being studied as a diagnostic tool to detect the SARS-CoV-2 virus deposited on surfaces of different materials", says Olga Muñoz (IAA-CSIC).


A great challenge

The greatest difficulties of the project, which entails a great scientific and technological challenge, lie in the limited information available about the virus - in terms of its physical characteristics, interaction mechanisms, depositing on surfaces and interaction with light. As for its size, just 120 nanometers (a nanometer is a millionth of a millimeter).

For this purpose, it is proposed to explore almost the entire optical range, including the ultraviolet bands, the visible spectrum, the infrared and even the terahertz band, some of which are already being used successfully to determine optical and electromagnetic properties of other types of viruses, even smaller than this SARS-CoV-2.

Although the researchers start with already available technology, the problem they face, the visualization of contaminated areas not visible to the human eye, is very complex and the combination of optical and processing techniques proposed is highly innovative.

According to the scientists involved in this project, the first results could begin to be obtained in just three months, although the research has a horizon of about eight months. The group of researchers will openly publish the scientific results obtained in the course of the research, as well as the designs and devices that are developed, to enable their use and improvement by the international community.



Instituto de Astrofísica de Andalucía (IAA-CSIC)
Unidad de Divulgación y Comunicación
Silbia López de Lacalle - sll[arroba]iaa.es - 958230676