With the unprecedented emphasis on combating COVID-19, Grand Forks Public Schools and UND are working with a company that’s developing a cutting-edge device, which detects and disinfects biological contaminants possibly carrying coronavirus.

SafetySpect Inc., a California-based company, is developing the Contamination and Sanitation Inspection and Disinfection (CSI-D) device, which scans surfaces to find respiratory droplets and other substances not visible to the naked eye, but could endanger health.

Red River High School will be the first test site for the device in the school system, said Chris Arnold, GFPS director of buildings and grounds. A prototype of the device was demonstrated for four RRHS custodians earlier this month, he said.

Custodians will be asked to use the CSI-D device and provide feedback that SafetySpect can use in product development, Arnold said.

“It’s one of those things we’re doing that nobody else in the country is doing,” he said. “It’s an exciting partnership -- a really neat thing that Grand Forks Public Schools is a part of.”

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“Patents have been issued, and patents are pending worldwide. There’s no one else in the world that can identify respiratory droplets besides us, visually," Kenneth Barton, SafetySpect CEO, said.

SafetySpect is working with ComDel Innovation, in Wahpeton, N.D., to manufacture the device, Barton said, noting that his company is hopeful the first batch of devices will be ready for commercialization in January.

How it works

The hand-held CSI-D emits a structured (ultraviolet) light which causes biological contamination to light up on a screen, according to Barton.

Linked to the CSI-D is a tablet which shows an image that highlights saliva, general biological contaminants and fecal matter; each is color-coded.

The device can be operated at a safe distance from the contaminant, Barton said.

“The purpose of the device is, first of all, to make sure (custodians) are working in a safe environment, so we protect them and we protect the students -- who are the most important, of course,” said Nejma Djabelkhir, who recently earned a doctorate in petroleum engineering at UND and heads an office SafetySpect has established at the UND Center for Innovation.

Her husband, Kouhyar Tavakolian, associate professor and director of the biomedical engineering program in the UND College of Engineering and Mines and principal investigator on the SafetySpect project, is among a team which is helping to develop the device.

While an operator conducts the scan, sensors will be placed on the operator’s body to detect the intensity of back-reflected UV light, according to a UND news release. Tavakolian’s team will study the results to gauge how much personal protection equipment will be needed for safe operation.

The use of the CSI-D was recently demonstrated on UND aircraft.

This semester, the SafetySpect system will be tested in UND labs, where researchers will “contaminate” various materials then assess the light’s safety and effectiveness at decontaminating them, according to UND.

“We’re using the CSI-D tool to identify respiratory droplets on sensitive airplane equipment that you cannot traditionally just spray down with disinfectant,” Barton said.

This use of UVC isn’t novel, but SafetySpect’s paring of a tablet device to tune its visual output, as well as record the sanitation process, can provide administrators with improved record-keeping, through incident reports, and more accountability in matters of public health.

“All of the process will be recorded, time-stamped, dated and location-stamped in a digital record in the cloud,” said Fartash Vasefi, chief technology office at SafetySpect.

Other UV systems offer only the disinfection aspect.

“They don’t have the imaging and documentation to go with it,” he said.

Cleaning in schools

In a school setting, if a student is ill and has symptoms, the device can be used to scan for respiratory droplets in a 10-foot area around that person’s desk, Barton said.

“We can’t say if the coronavirus is there, but we know the droplets shouldn’t be there,” he said.

The custodian can turn up the UVC LEDs and aim the device at surfaces in the area, so the contaminant is no longer harmful. Then the custodian can clean away the droplets in a safe manner, because any virus would have been neutralized by the UVC light, Barton said.

The feedback from custodians who use the device will help the company create a computer app that outlines Sanitation Standard Operating Procedures, or SSOPs, and draft protocols for its use in the workflow.

“That is important to us, because we need that feedback,” Barton said.

“North Dakota will be our first entrance to the public school system,” he said, noting that company leaders have given a presentation to State Superintendent Kirsten Baesler on the device and how it could be used in other North Dakota schools.

Arnold said the CSI-D device would not necessarily be used every day in schools, but would be an effective tool to verify that a space is cleaned, so “the custodian knows, ‘we’re good to go, we don’t have to go back through.’ ”

The CSI-D device is an “amazing tool in the toolbox for them to be able to learn what’s getting missed and needs to be checked," Arnold said. For example, in a demonstration with pop machines, “the buttons were nice and clean, but where they saw dirt was way down where you grab the can of pop out of the machine.”

Evolving research

In the four years since it was launched, SafetySpect had been focused on research related to food quality issues, specifically “the identification of difficult-to-find things,” conducted with the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the U.S. Army, Barton said.

“Then, when COVID hit, we realized there is an enzyme in human respiratory droplets and saliva,” he said. “We wrote a digital signature for that enzyme, so now we can actually identify respiratory droplets anywhere.”

In talks with Tavakolian and other UND scientists, SafetySpect considered testing and manufacturing the device in North Dakota. The company received a $1.5 million grant from the CARES Act, awarded by the North Dakota Department of Agriculture, which paved the way for SafetySpect to set up shop in the UND Center for Innovation, Barton said.

In addition to schools and the airline industry, SafetySpect leaders expect that the CSI-D device will be a valuable tool for restaurants, emergency vehicles, supermarkets, nursing homes, hospitals, hotels, public transportation vehicles and meat-processing plants.