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March 2022

Researcher shifts work, finds “silver bullet” for COVID-19 protection

At a glance
The challenge

The need to protect people from COVID-19 inspired Dr. Seyyedarash Haddadi, a postdoctoral researcher in chemical engineering at UBC Okanagan, to shift his graphene research from metals to fabrics and find a way to improve the protection offered by masks 

The solution

Dr. Seyyedarash Haddadi developed a novel, low-cost compound — made from a graphene oxide-silver combination — that can be used as part of a coating material for masks; this material makes them 99.99 percent effective against transmission of COVID-19.

The outcome

In teaming up with Ontario-based company Zentek, Dr. Haddadi is working on bringing his innovation to market. After receiving approval from Health Canada in September 2021, Zentek made its first major commercial sale of the novel coating — marketed as ZenGuard™. With Zentek’s plans to build its own manufacturing facility, Dr. Haddadi hopes to produce up to 800 million coated masks per month in 2022

Dr. Seyyedarash Haddadi developed a novel, low-cost compound — made from a graphene oxide-silver combination — that can be used as part of a coating material for masks; this material makes them 99.99 percent effective against transmission of COVID-19.

The COVID-19 pandemic sparked an urgent need for innovation in all aspects of our lives – and researchers rose to the challenge. From COVID-19 diagnostics and treatments to changes in how we work and receive healthcare, the pandemic has fast-tracked innovation across sectors. 

High-potential researchers and businesses around the world did a pandemic pivot, shifting their work and resources to respond to the world’s pressing need for solutions. In Canada, Seyyedarash (Arash) Haddadi’s story is a standout example of innovation partnerships helping to counter the COVID-19 threat. 

In March 2020, Dr. Haddadi was pursuing postdoctoral research at the University of British Columbia’s Okanagan campus on anticorrosion coatings for metallic parts. When the pandemic hit, he shifted his research to help respond to the crisis. 

Mitacs facilitates academic-industry collaboration 

Dr. Haddadi redirected his initial graphene research from metals to fabrics – finding the “silver bullet” of mask protection with an antiviral coating made from a graphene oxide-silver combination. He received funding for his project under Mitacs’s two-year Elevate program, which connects postdoctoral researchers with private sector partners in innovation projects. 

With approval of his Mitacs’s fellowship, Dr. Haddadi moved to Ontario to collaborate with a company called Zentek in developing the product and getting it to market. 

“The final product is made from a silver-coated graphene oxide sheet, less than one nanometre in thickness, that we disperse in water and then spray on the surface of fabrics,” says Dr. Haddadi, adding that no solvents or toxic chemicals are added to the compound, resulting in an odourless coating that is safe for consumer use. “When we apply it to an average four-ply mask, we coat the inner layer so that nothing is on the exterior of the mask,” he adds. 

The result of nearly 1.5 years of exploration and experimentation is a mask coating that is low cost to make and more than 99.9 percent effective against the transmission of both person-to-person airborne pathogens and surface pathogens of the COVID-19 virus. 

Product approval and commercialization success 

In September of 2021, the first mask using the graphene oxide-silver coating received approval from Health Canada, and Zentek subsequently made its first commercial sale, marketed as ZenGuardTM, to TreboRX Corp., an Ontario-based company. Anticipating a high demand, Zentek has invested $15 million to scale up production and reach 800 million antimicrobial masks per month in 2022. 

“After announcing our invention, we heard from many companies around the world who are interested in partnering with us to test and use this coating on their fabrics,” Haddadi says. Part of the appeal, he notes, is that only a very small amount of the coating is required to effectively deactivate pathogens. “One gram of material is sufficient to coat 300 masks, making this a very affordable large-scale solution.” 

Dr. Haddadi says Mitacs helped him commercialize his research in two important ways. 

“First, as a university graduate from Iran, Mitacs introduced me to research and industry in Canada. And secondly, the stipend Mitacs provided enabled me to focus on my research and discovery.” 

As part of the Elevate management training component, Dr. Haddadi also learned valuable business skills such as project management, how to write business proposals, and how to apply for a patent. 

Recognition and plans to expand 

In addition to achieving the commercial success of his product in a short time, Dr. Haddadi received the prestigious 2021 Mitacs Award for Commercialization, awarded by the National Research Council (NRC), and presented at the National Arts Centre in Ottawa on November 23, 2021. 

“Dr. Haddadi’s success is an example of how Mitacs’s academic and industry partnerships empower Canadian innovation,” says John Hepburn, CEO of Mitacs. “The collaboration between Dr. Haddadi and Zentek is a perfect example of how academic expertise and the right industry partner – brought together by Mitacs – can create innovations that make a difference for Canada and the world.” 

For his part, Dr. Haddadi is hoping to apply his existing innovation to solving other problems. “We are still working to optimize this coating and testing it in other applications,” he says. 

Zentek sees this kind of nanotechnology as playing a key role in the future of healthcare breakthroughs, with incredible potential to improve lives.