Copper might be the new plastic. As manufacturers race to shill products that might decrease the risk of spreading COVID-19, copper is rising to the top due to its antimicrobial properties. You can now find everything from copper-infused face masks, clothing, and “nasal wands” to hospital equipment.
The latest product to get the copper treatment? The phone case. A startup called Aeris recently launched a copper-coated phone case that claims to kill 99.9% of microbes, including coronavirus. Given how disgusting our phones are, cofounder Nick O’Brien is hoping that copper phone cases could become as ubiquitous in our pandemic hygiene arsenals as face masks and hand sanitizer.
After graduating from Vanderbilt University by way of virtual ceremony, O’Brien, along with his cofounders Isaac Lichter and Andrew Medland, designed the copper phone case as they socially isolated together over the past few months. While exploring the natural germ-killing properties of copper, they chose the phone case as their launch product because they read stories about healthcare workers switching out their cases between work and home. Plus, “everyone has them,” Lichter says.
Experts have advised the public to sanitize their phones in addition to their hands and groceries. Even Apple directs its users to clean their iPhones “using a 70% isopropyl alcohol wipe or Clorox Disinfecting Wipes,” and for good reason: Our phones (and their cases) are a germaphobe’s nightmare. They are like petri dishes on which pathogens fester: Some studies suggest that they’re 10 times more grimy than a toilet seat.
Even before the onset of COVID-19, scientists have found evidence that viruses live on our mobile devices. In April, Lotti Tajouri, an associate professor of genomics and molecular biology at Bond University in Queensland, Australia, conducted a review of more than 50 studies that examined the risk of phones being contaminated with viruses, as well as bacteria and fungi, finding that 68% of phones tested contained one of the three. While coronavirus was not accounted for in the review, “the virus responsible for COVID-19 can live on glass, plastic, stainless steel for days,” Tajouri told HealthDay News. And cellphones, he added, are “particularly receptive hosts for germs simply because we first never wash them, and we take them everywhere and all the time with us.” Ew.
Copper’s ‘Goldilocks zone’
So what’s so special about copper?
Unlike plastic, glass, and stainless steel, copper has everlasting self-disinfecting properties and has long been used in medicine; an Egyptian medical text shows records of using the material to sterilize both chest wounds and drinking water. In modern days, copper has been used to reduce the risk of infection, especially in hospitals. A 2019 study published in American Society for Microbiology tested copper’s efficacy in hospital beds, which are among the most contaminated surfaces in patient care. The study found that copper-encapsulated hospital beds were contaminated with an average of 95% fewer bacteria than the conventional beds. Another study, published in 2013 in Infection Control and Hospital Epidemiology, found that patients treated in ICU rooms with copper alloy surfaces experienced significantly lower rates of healthcare-acquired infections compared to patients cared for in conventional rooms.
While the Aeris team is still awaiting findings from a third-party lab that is specifically testing the phone case’s response to live coronavirus pathogens, the founders have been doing some rather unorthodox testing of their own. In May, Lichter and his mom, who has a PhD in molecular biology, set up a laboratory in their basement to test the efficacy of Aeris (hey, every family quarantines in their own way). Together they measured colonies of everyday germs on a normal plastic phone case and a prototype of the Aeris. After multiple rounds of testing, the mother-son team’s data revealed that the survival rate of bacteria on the copper case was significantly less than on the plastic one.
One reason we don’t see copper-covered everything in public spaces is because, as a raw material, it can be cost-prohibitive, says Aeris’s Medland. “Before, people were making solid copper door knobs, which is really expensive,” he says. But Aeris’s patent-pending coating process uses “just the right amount” of copper, which keeps the case lightweight while also cutting down on cost.
“Depending on the concentration of copper you put in an alloy, it’ll have different levels of antimicrobial efficacy,” says O’Brien. “There are different thresholds.”
The Aeris case uses more than 70% of copper by weight, which the cofounder calls “the Goldilocks zone”—the copper is concentrated enough to be effective at killing germs, but not so much so that the case turns green (like the Statue of Liberty).
There’s another challenge specific to phone cases: Copper can render many of the necessary functions of the phone useless, so the team had to design a means to remove the electrical charge from the copper during the coating process. They use a unique method closest to what’s called cold springing, which involves shooting copper at a surface at high speeds. “Our patent removes the electrical conductivity and allows the phone signal to travel freely,” says O’Brien.
The limitations of copper
For all its potential, copper is no miraculous panacea for something like COVID-19, experts warn. “Coronavirus is mainly transmitted from person to person,” says Ari Frenkel, infectious disease specialist and founder of Arkstone Medical Solutions. So even if our phone cases are armed against the virus, there are plenty of other ways we can contract it.
“It’s not like it hits the copper and poof, it’s gone,” Linsey Marr, an aerosol scientist at Virginia Tech told the New York Times. Research shows that it takes around 45 minutes for copper to reduce the amount of virus on a surface by half. And, like Frenkel says, surfaces like phone cases are certainly not the primary vehicle through which the virus spreads. Even the Aeris website emphasizes that its copper case is “designed to be another tool in your anti-COVID arsenal,” and advises consumers that “it should be used in addition to, not as a substitute for, other measures like social distancing and mask usage.”
Still, Frenkel says anything that could reduce the risk of contamination, even if that’s through surface contamination, matters. With science to prove Aeris’s efficacy, Frenkel says he could envision this kind of technology to be an aid in a healthcare setting. “Doctors are always looking at their phones and use them as a means of obtaining relevant medical information, even accessing patient charts,” he says.
Frenkel believes the more interventions in place to reduce possible infections in healthcare, the better. But the science needs to be there first. “Hopefully a study will come out that proves” that the copper case is effective, he says, “and that’ll be a positive thing.
While copper’s fighting powers against coronavirus specifically must be better understood, there’s promising preliminary evidence: An April study published in New England Journal of Medicine found that—under controlled lab conditions, at least—the virus survived for less than four hours on copper surfaces.
Phone cases are just the beginning for the Aeris trio, who plan to take their patent-pending copper coating technology to great heights as they develop a catalogue of evidence to back the metal’s powers.
“We see ‘germ resistant’ as a feature consumers [will] want and expect from their products,” says Lichter, who likens the trait to “water resistant” or “lightweight.” If the science is there, O’Brien says they anticipate their unique copper coating could be applied to “grocery cart handles, high touch surfaces, and really anything that gets dirty.”