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A breakthrough: long-lasting antimicrobial coating could help prevent infectious disease transmission

Innovation is often defined as taking two things that exist and putting them together in a new way.

For Dr. Heidi Britton and her team at Ionomr Innovations, it’s a definition they took to heart — leading them to shift from developing an ion-exchange polymer for energy storage systems to adapting the polymer for use as a surface coating with the potential to reduce the transmission of pathogens such as COVID-19.


The breakthrough

It was 2018 when the team at Vancouver-based Ionomr first began discussing a wider use for their ion-exchange materials, including a polymer called Aemion. 

While they were developing the materials for energy storage systems, the team discovered the materials’ antimicrobial properties could also be useful in clinical environments and high-risk public spaces.

Though the idea was promising, the start-up had limited resources and instead focused on scaling the materials for their original use.

Then the pandemic hit, and Ionomr pivoted — they picked up the research again so they could develop the materials for application in public health.

“Investigating further, I realized just how effective this could be as a surface coating,” says Dr. Britton, who was a key member of the Ionomr team responsible for resuming the testing. She has a background in biochemistry and biomedical engineering research, as well as front-line clinical experience as a full-time resident physician.


Solving a market problem

Antimicrobial surface coatings are not new in clinical settings — they’ve been used for years on high-touch surfaces like doorknobs, counters and elevator buttons to reduce the risk of infections associated with health care.

But many have had persistent issues.

Some of them lack durability, requiring frequent reapplication; they degrade when exposed to sanitizing products and are susceptible to damage from UV light or mechanical rubbing and scrubbing. Others are harmful to the environment or too dangerous to use on contact surfaces, which limits their use in hospitals and public spaces.

At the same time, the increased cleaning protocols required under COVID-19 heightened the need — and the demand — for an improved antimicrobial product.

Ionomr’s ion-exchange polymer could be a solution.    

“Results to date suggest its activity against bacteria and viruses exceeds competing materials like nanosilver yet it is long-lasting, easy to apply and isn’t toxic to the environment,” says Dr. Britton.

According to Dr. Britton, this polymer has shown the potential to provide safe, consistent and reliable antimicrobial protection to help protect vulnerable populations and the public at large.

Dr. Heidi Britton received a COVID-19 Innovation grant from Joule for her work with Ionomr Innovations Inc. on an ion-exchange polymer. Learn more about the program and grant recipients.

Dr. Heidi Britton and the multidisciplinary team at Ionomr









The multi-disciplinary team at Vancouver-based Ionomr Innovations Inc.


A competitive edge

Derived from the same high-strength material found in space suits, Ionomr’s ion-exchange polymer is unique because of its extreme charge density, chemical stability and durability.

“We’ve found that so far, it's very resistant to UV degradation, bleaching, fouling and areas where other antimicrobial coatings haven’t performed as well,” says Dr. Britton.

It can be manufactured in two different ways. First it can be produced to form a thin, transparent coating for surfaces. Second, it can be electrospun into threads to make fabrics for masks and HVAC system filters.


The future

Dr. Britton says Ionomr plans to deploy the polymer coating in hospitals early in 2021. Down the road, they hope it can be used in other high-risk spaces like long-term care homes and public transportation and in applications such as fabrics, HVAC systems and medical equipment.

Since the polymer has already been manufactured for its original purpose, she’s confident they will have the capacity to scale up quickly.

“Early consultations with leaders in this space have been very positive,” says Dr. Britton. “Our team is excited for the next steps.”

More stories about Joule's COVID-19 Innovation grant recipients:


This material is for informational purposes only. It is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice and should not be relied on as health or personal advice. The opinions stated by the authors are made in a personal capacity and do not necessarily reflect those of the Canadian Medical Association and its subsidiaries including Joule. 

About the author(s)

CMA Joule supports physicians and medical learners in the pursuit of clinical excellence. As a subsidiary of the Canadian Medical Association (CMA), we support the profession with continuing education and other learning opportunities as well as leading evidence-based clinical products and research.