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NEWS | May 29, 2020

NRL Chemists’ Rapid Response Cleans Up

By J. Raynel Koch

WASHINGTON — The U.S. Naval Research Laboratory Chemistry Division researchers responded within four days to the Navy’s request in early April for Coronavirus (COVID-19) shipboard decontamination strategies.

The research team identified preferred chemistries and recommended products to disinfect large areas using commercially available products that were safe for the Sailors while minimizing the risk for causing shipboard corrosion.

Jim Wynne, a research chemist, led the efforts for the request. His expertise in surface decontamination directed the team to concentrate on the quaternary ammonium family of compounds. These compounds are known to exhibit broad-spectrum activity against a variety of pathogens at relatively low concentrations. They destroy microorganisms such as bacteria, fungi and viruses that cause harm to people.

These chemicals are commonly found in disinfectant wipes, sprays and other household cleaners designed to kill germs.

“Quaternary ammonium compounds were the most sensible solution for large area shipboard use, because they can effectively deactivate the virus by destroying its protein membrane,” Wynne said. “There are other chemicals that can be used to deactivate the virus, but they would be more corrosively aggressive to a ship’s delicate ecosystem.

“It’s always important to follow the manufacturer’s product guidelines. From my experience, these kind of disinfectants should reside on the surface about 10 minutes to be considered sanitized.”

The manner of application was also considered important for such large area decontamination. The researchers recommended the product be applied as a fine mist directly to compatible surfaces to ensure surfaces were adequately wetted while also not disturbing contamination that may be residing on the surface. The NRL team’s deep expertise of coating formulation, testing, and demonstration made the rapid response possible.

“Our extensive fundamental knowledge of chemical processes and the naval shipboard corrosion prevention risks and reduction led to the speedy recommendation,” said Ted Lemieux, a chemical engineer and head of the Center for Corrosion Science and Engineering.

Corrosion is a key concern for shipboard applications since ships employ a wide range of metals and nonmetals that are not normally found in household applications. These concerns also include electrical equipment and electronics that are not designed for some modes of disinfection such as fogging or misting.

The NRL Chemistry Division conducts basic and applied research and development to address critical Navy needs and advance the frontiers of physical, chemical, biological, and material science as well as nanoscience.

“Our focus on basic chemistries allowed us to spring into action when required,” said John Russell, Chemistry Division superintendent. “Our knowledge and awareness of the decontamination and corrosion issues helped us respond with recommendations that we knew would kill the virus, keep the Sailors safe, and not corrode component systems of the ship.”

About the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory 
NRL is a scientific and engineering command dedicated to research that drives innovative advances for the Navy and Marine Corps from the seafloor to space and in the information domain. NRL headquarters is located in Washington, D.C., with major field sites in Stennis Space Center, Mississippi; Key West, Florida; and Monterey, California, and employs approximately 2,500 civilian scientists, engineers and support personnel.

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