Getting new technology like this to market quickly and safely is no small feat – but that is where IFM comes in.

Researchers from IFM’s ARC Research Hub for Future Fibres supported the research, development, production and technical assessment of an antiviral textile treatment invented by Xefco, an Australian textile technology company, with face masks incorporating the technology manufactured by HeiQ Materials AG, a Swiss antimicrobial textile manufacturer. The face mask features a groundbreaking Xefco technology called MetalliX™, the first-ever thin-film antiviral copper treatment for textiles. 

The project was a major change of direction for the IFM researchers, who at the beginning of 2020 were working with Xefco on its technology that deposited aluminum into textiles for heat retention. When the pandemic hit, Xefco pivoted its direction and began depositing copper into textiles due to its well-known antimicrobial properties.

‘We had to quickly adapt and reprioritise what we were doing with Xefco to start from scratch in some cases, as we were quite advanced with some prototypes,’ says chief investigator Associate Professor Alessandra Sutti.

‘We quickly helped them get the rough edges off the new technology and supported them through the scale-up phase, which always has some hidden surprises.

‘There was a lot of scientific investigative work trying to reverse-engineer what was happening during scale-up, to ensure safe and robust production and materials. 

‘Much of the work also went into producing mask safety data that was relevant to the regulatory bodies – the FDA in the US, the TGA in Australia and all the equivalents around the world – because there is no such product in the market. 

‘These are all necessary steps to achieving a technology that is commercially viable but also approved for use as a medical device.

‘Xefco were breaking new ground and so were we, in trying to develop appropriate materials safety testing methodologies.’

Xefco has collaborated with Deakin University in a range of capacities for more than 10 years – a relationship that, Xefco chief executive officer Tom Hussey says, ‘essentially underpins the research and development of Xefco’stechnology’. However, teaming up with Assoc. Prof. Sutti’s team of researchers was a first.

‘The experience working with the team was really good, and I think that’s due to a few reasons, the main one being the team itself being incredibly versatile,’ Hussey says. 

‘Their skill set allows them to be open-minded about the problems they are tackling and how they go about approaching these problems.

‘But also I think it is due to the flexibility that’s offered by the ARC Research Hub itself. A lot of conventional research projects, particularly ones that have grant funding attached, will be quite fixed in terms of the process, the goal and the milestones, which means it’s very hard to change direction. 

‘Fortunately, with the Future Fibres Hub we were able to pivot and change the focus. So, despite the obvious challenges of early 2021 with things like closures and limited access to labs, which were major challenges, we were still able to be quite productive and refocus our resources, both at Xefco and Deakin, to take on this problem.’ 

The MetalliX™ face masks are already in high demand, attracting interest from health bodies and private companies – and for good reason.

The Peter Doherty Institute for Infection and Immunity (Doherty Institute) conducted independent studies of the technology, which revealed that materials treated with MetalliX™ can inactivate Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus 2 (SARS-CoV-2) in as little as five minutes. 

‘Masks are a key tool in stopping the spread of COVID-19 and anything that you can do to improve their effectiveness is a good step forward,’ Assoc. Prof. Sutti says.

‘There are a number of solutions in the market, including some HeiQ products that have SARS-CoV-2 active components. Coatings of this type are common on surfaces but are not necessarily common in personal protective equipment.

‘Most PPE works on the basis of physical exclusion of particles or aerosols. This new PPE  is now proactively inactivating or deactivating what is coming through the mask.’

The MetalliX™ masks are currently being manufactured at a HeiQ factory in Spain and are available to markets in Europe and Canada. However, in Australia they are completing the final stages of TGA approval before they can hit the market.

But face masks are just the start, with Xefco hoping to roll out the MetalliX™ coating treatment to a broad range of PPE, including surgical gowns and drapes to air filters in hotels, planes and restaurants.

In 2021, Xefco started a new joint venture company with another IFM partner, PPK Group. The joint venture is called Survivon and will start locally producing anti-viral, antibacterial face masks using Xefco technology, with further research and development support provided by IFM. 

Assoc. Prof. Sutti says further development of these new materials includes using greater percentages of recycled materials in the supply chain. 

‘This is already happening – our team is working together with Xefco and Survivon to change materials inputs and disposal/recovery pathways at the start/end of life,’ she says.

The MetalliX™ face mask project has proven the resilience and flexibility of A/Prof Sutti’s Short Fibres Team and puts them in a greater position for the next challenge to arise in these uncertain times.

‘Our team has broad experience and multidisciplinary basis, in such a way that, while we’ve not seen everything on earth, changing the direction of research work is absolutely possible,’ she says.

‘If you have the right people, you can pivot rapidly, in response to industry needs and opportunities. 

‘Our team works in areas that go from dye chemistry, which we are now doing with Xefco, to active materials for antibacterial devices, to redesigning molecules to keep people dry, warm, cool and things of that nature. And we work with industry to transform those ideas from the lab into processes for textile plants.

‘Our team has a very collaborative and open structure. We call the way we work ‘distributed thinking’. 

‘We don’t allocate projects to individuals. Instead, we have combinations of team members allocated to projects. It’s not uncommon for a member to be allocated to four to six projects. 

‘This allows us to bring together the best brains for the task. This is particularly important when collaborating with industry and taking technologies and solutions from the lab to the plant and vice versa. 

‘Our team has such a broad set of expertise that no matter the challenge, they can be up to it.’