SASKATOON -- Imagine an air-purification system that not only removes dust and noxious particles, but can also neutralize a virus in the air.

That’s the goal of a team of chemical and biological engineers at the University of Saskatchewan.

For 15 years engineers have been developing an active filtration system, using active oxygen molecules to zap organic pathogens and noxious particles found in the air. A traditional HEPA air filter simply traps air particles.

When the pandemic hit earlier this year the team of engineers pivoted and have been working to develop a way to neutralize the COVID-19 virus.

“The virus is found in droplets of water in the air. Somebody coughs, somebody sneezes and there are these water droplets that contain the virus for the most part,” said Jafar Soltan, professor of chemical engineering.

“(In this) active filter, we produce some active forms of oxygen. This oxygen is the one that is going to, in a way zap the virus and take away its functionality.”

Right now Soltan and his student researcher Nazanin Charchi have been testing a prototype design at the Canadian Light Source (CLS). With the help of the CLS the team is taking high resolution images of their device in action to gain a deeper knowledge of the sanitation process.

“If there are pathogens, it inactivates pathogens and converts them to carbon dioxide and water so nothing harmful,” Charchi said.

The end goal is to develop the technology into something that can be added to indoor ventilation systems at shopping centres, seniors homes, schools and universities. Soltan said it can also be added on public transit buses.

Soltan said it’s unlikely this new active filtration system will be ready to roll out soon, but the steps are being taken to have something similar ready for the public when the next pandemic hits. Or it could tackle the common flu.

“Really, the main issue is to think about the new challenge, the pathogens in the air and who knows, if this becomes an issue and for the future we won’t need a flu vaccine because we have something that can kill the virus in the air,” Soltan said.

Thus far, the team has been able to successfully neutralize chemicals such as acetone and tholin. In the new year Soltan said he’s going to try and test the active filter system on water droplets containing the COVID-19 virus.

“We want to make sure the active oxygen can overcome the obstacle of the water droplets and get in the virus inside,” he said. “We are very excited about this but we’re also very cautious.”