Students think ‘outside the box’ to protect grocery shoppers from COVID-19

Two Clemson University freshmen are thinking outside the box– and shining a light inside it– to combat COVID-19 at the grocery store.

Carleigh Coffin and Ashlyn Soule said they are designing a device that would be located at supermarket checkout lanes.  Groceries would be placed on the conveyor belt and then pass through an enclosed box where they would be exposed to UVC light.

From left, Clemson University freshmen Carleigh Coffin and Ashlyn Soule are working with Delphine Dean to create a device that could help combat COVID-19 at the grocery store. Dean is the the Ron and Jane Family Innovation Professor.
From left, Clemson University freshmen Carleigh Coffin and Ashlyn Soule are working with Delphine Dean to create a device that could help combat COVID-19 at the grocery store. Dean is the the Ron and Jane Family Innovation Professor.

UVC is a type of ultraviolet light that destroys genetic material inside viruses and other microbes, according to The National Academies of Sciences, Engineering, and Medicine.

Running groceries through the device help could kill off the novel coronavirus, preventing its spread, during the pandemic, the students said. When it’s over, the device could still be useful, helping kill viruses that cause the flu and preventing contamination from pathogens, such as salmonella, they said.

“Everyone needs to shop, and a lot of essential workers work in those grocery stores,” Soule said. “We thought that this would be really helpful to a wide variety of people.”

The project is one of many examples of how students and faculty members are stepping up to meet COVID-19’s unique challenges, even with campus closed and research groups working remotely to prevent the novel coronavirus from spreading.

Coffin and Soule are designing a prototype under the direction of Delphine Dean, the Ron and Jane Lindsay Family Innovation Professor of bioengineering. Their work is part of Creative Inquiry, a program that encourages undergraduates to conduct research.

“This is not something a professor would come up with,” Dean said. “As much as they are making a box, they are thinking outside the box. That’s what I enjoy about Creative Inquiry– you get freshmen and other undergraduates who are early in their careers and flexible in their thinking. They come up with some cool ideas.”

For Coffin, the new realities of grocery shopping are thrown into sharp relief every time she goes to work. When she isn’t studying or conducting research at Clemson, Coffin is a cashier for a major grocery store chain, giving her a unique, first-hand perspective on the UVC-light project.

“I want to create a way to decontaminate groceries so that I’m not passing germs and so that I’m protecting myself,” she said.

Coffin and Soule said the box they are designing will stand about 1 ½-2 feet so that it can fit tall items, such as cereal boxes. The students think they can make each device for about $100 in parts. The UVC lamp is the most expensive piece at about $50 each.

The National Academies has reported that UVC probably kills the novel coronavirus that causes COVID-19, while cautioning that more study is needed. UVC destroys related coronaviruses, including the one that causes the disease MERS, the National Academies reported.

Coffin and Soule estimated that UVC kills about 99 percent of bacteria and viruses.

“Our research showed that after 10 seconds UVC tends to kill bacteria and viruses that are about six inches away,” Coffin said.

The box that Coffin and Soule are creating would be lined with aluminum to reflect light onto the groceries and to keep the light inside the box, protecting cashiers, customers and others in the area.

UVC has the potential to damage human skin and should be used only on objects and surfaces, according to the National Academies.

“We want to assure people that if this is in their grocery store, this is safe and they are going to be protected,” Soule said. “The UVC light stays inside the box, similar to the X-ray machines at the airport.”

Coffin, of Irmo, is a General Engineering student who plans to major in bioengineering. Soule, of Summerville, is a biochemistry major.

Their device is one of the projects that helped inspire the Clemson COVID Challenge, organized by Dean. Teams of undergraduates from throughout the University are being challenged to work on problems related to the COVID-19 situation and potential future pandemics. (Learn how to join here.)

Martine LaBerge, chair of the Department of Bioengineering, said that COVID-19 research empowers students to come up with their own solutions to some of the new challenges that society and individuals face.

“They have an opportunity to conduct highly relevant research while gaining valuable skills and experience,” she said. “I am continuously inspired by the unique solutions that students are able to find, and their determination to continue their work in the face of the COVID-19 situation.”