A conceptual image of formites on an aircraft seat material, the formites are yellow and the material is grey

The challenges of incorporating antimicrobial materials into the cabin

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More than half a year into the COVID-19 pandemic, and as medical researchers learn more about the spread of the disease, it is clear that there is no silver bullet to protect people from the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus.

While droplet spread seems to be more of a focus than fomite spread on surfaces, airlines are nonetheless focusing on cabin cleaning and disinfection.

Many airlines have been branding these procedures as a sales tactic. But this kind of active disinfection is expensive in terms of staff cost, products used, and management. There are also unknowns and margins of error, including long-term effects on interiors materials and human health.

As a result, developing new materials that offer passive disinfection via antimicrobial action is of growing interest within the aviation supply chain, from airlines to seatmakers and their suppliers.

To perhaps oversimplify, the process involves adding certain substances to a material — leather, fabric, or thermoplastics, say — during its manufacture, so that it disrupts microbes, including viruses like the SARS-CoV-2 coronavirus that causes COVID-19.

Runway Girl Network sat down with MGR Foamtex’s managing director Jon Rose and manager of business development Dave Howgego to learn more about how the company is incorporating passive disinfection into its cabin materials.

The action is complex, and varies depending on the antimicrobial substance used, but in this case, says MGR Foamtex’s Howgego, “it’s silver ion technology. The product that we’re building our products around is called Biomaster, and it’s out in the marketplace. We’ve signed an agreement [and are] working closely with them.”

A conceptual image of an elevated aircraft seat, in grey, to denote the antimicrobial material being discussed in the article

Beyond applying a solution, Biomaster is about adding antimicrobial properties to the materials during their manufacture. Image: MGR Foamtex

Crucially, the technology has been demonstrated in other contexts previously.

“We’re not trying to invent something brand new,” emphasizes Howgego. “We’re taking something that’s very well established, that works very well, and we’re looking to transfer that technology into the aircraft cabin, where it has not been used before. It’s predominantly used in hospitals, the medical sector, dental surgeries, et cetera.”

MGR Foamtex is testing the materials from a number of different viewpoints, many of which are specialized for aviation.

“Our focus in substantiation is to do the work that is required to bring it into aviation,” Howgego says. “We need to validate that it works with typical aircraft cabin materials, and we need to address how it’s going to be handled by airlines in terms of dry-cleaning and other cleaning agents, and of course we need to address the certification issues as well, which is more our bread and butter.”

In its latest round of work, the materials completed the ISO 18184 standard contact trial, resulting in a viral kill rate of 85% after fifteen minutes.

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Testing is ongoing to confirm that the antimicrobial action remains effective over the expected lifecycle — and wash cycles — of the material involved. Previous testing in other contexts, including British National Health Service uniforms and personal protective equipment, suggests it remains 99% effective even after ten calendar years of laundry cycles.

“All the evidence we have is that it will be extremely good,” Howgego says. “It’s essentially going to be permanent in terms of how long things last in the cabin. Something else will cause it to be replaced much earlier.”

MGR Foamtex has completed twelve dry-cleaning fabric cycles using perchloroethylene, which Howgego characterizes as the most aggressive solvent uses, and is doing repeat testing at present.

But it’s not just about the medical science: it’s about the social science to inform and reassure passengers too. Rose emphasizes that something visible, like a seat tag or a placard is likely to be helpful in putting travelers’ minds at ease that the surfaces they’re sitting on and interacting with have been designed with hygiene in mind.

A piece of furnature with an antimicrobial tag on it, reading Biomaster

Will passengers learn to look for branded antimicrobial tags like this on their aircraft seats. Image: MGR Foamtex

All images credited to MGR Foamtex.

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