ETHS alums Nick O'Brien and Isaac Lichter, together with their Vanderbilt University classmate Andrew Medland, created a copper cell-phone case.

Two Evanston High School graduates, eager to help on the current pandemic frontline, have created a product that could help reduce transmission of the new coronavirus:  a cell phone case made of copper, which is known for its ability to kill microorganisms such as bacteria, fungi and viruses.   

Nick O’Brien and Isaac Lichter – both ETHS class of 2016 – started researching and designing the case after Mr. Lichter and his roommate, Andrew Medland, contracted mild cases of Covid-19. While recovering, an article titled “Copper Kills Coronavirus” caught Mr. Lichter’s eye; he was intrigued by copper’s antimicrobial properties, and surprised he was not hearing more about it during a pandemic.

“I just thought I need to immediately start covering things with copper, and why aren’t more people talking about this?” Mr. Lichter said.

He brought the idea to Mr. Medland and Mr. O’Brien, both of whom are fellow Vanderbilt University seniors, and they decided a cell phone case might be a logical item to make out of copper, since phones are handled so frequently.

“Everyone has one, and we constantly use them for everything we do,” Mr. Lichter explained. “It seemed like if we wanted to put a disease barrier in place, that would be an ideal place to start.” 

A copper case could help reduce the amount of cleaners and sanitizers needed to keep a phone free of germs, added Mr. Medland, who grew up in London and graduated from The Browning School in New York City in 2016. 

“Copper seemed so appealing because its inherent natural properties allow it to keep fighting germs continuously,” he said.

Research Shows Copper Kills Coronavirus

Mr. O’Brien dug into the science and learned that coronavirus can live on stainless steel – commonly used in hospitals for railings and door handles – for more than a week, while copper and alloys made with at least 70% copper can start killing off the virus within 20-30 minutes of contact. And copper keeps killing microbes over time, without losing its effectiveness.

“On copper you have a 99% or higher disinfection rate, depending on what study you look at and what kind of virus or bacteria you’re looking at,” Mr. O’Brien explained.“It just naturally creates such a hostile environment that it is actively protecting you.”

When harmful microbes like coronavirus land on copper, ions (electrically charged particles) destroy them by punching holes in their protective outer membranes. Copper ions also destroy the virus’s DNA and RNA – its genetic material – which then prevents the virus from becoming resistant to copper.

Researchers at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases in Hamilton, Mont., studied the survival rates of two SARS (“severe acute respiratory syndrome”) coronavirus strains on cardboard, stainless steel, plastic and copper. They found that copper killed SARS Cov-1, responsible for the 2003 SARS epidemic, within eight hours while SARS Cov-2, which causes Covid-19, lasted no more than four hours. The viruses remained viable up to a day on cardboard and up to three days on plastic and stainless steel, according to the study, whose results appeared in the April 16, 2020 issue of the New England Journal of Medicine.

Awareness of copper’s destructive super power is not new. Ancient civilizations around the globe used copper to make drinking vessels, for transporting water, and to treat wounds, headaches and other medical ailments. During 19th century cholera outbreaks, copper workers died at much lower rates from the bacterial disease, which led to better understanding of copper’s antimicrobial benefits. Copper-based paints and sheeting have long been applied to ship’s hulls to prevent barnacles, shipworms and marine weeds from clinging to the surface.

Making the Case for Aeris

To test their idea, Mr. Lichter and Mr. Medland made some prototype phone cases using a 3D printer and then hand plated them with copper. They launched an IndieGoGo campaign which quickly surpassed its $10,000 funding goal and drew attention from a variety of folks interested in their product. 

“Within weeks the trio began working with a manufacturer in southern California to produce the cases, which will be coated in an alloy of more than 70% copper rather than copper plated. Each case is paired with a separate plastic liner, to prevent the metal case from interfering with cellular signals.They also have enlisted a laboratory in Washington, D.C., to test the case for its antimicrobial and antiviral benefits.”

“We’ve had so many people reach out to us from a lot of different spheres, whether that’s science advisors or people interested in the business side of it,” Mr. Medland said, “because obviously, as college seniors, we don’t know everything about starting a business and making a product. And that’s been part of the adventure, just learning and getting better at it every day.”   

Their new company, called Aeris, the Latin word for copper, (, offers “the first phone case designed for a global pandemic” to fit a variety of iPhones and Galaxy phones, and may expand into Google’s Pixel and other Android phones. If all goes well, they envision offering other copper products with “high touch” surfaces. The newly minted phone cases should start shipping the last week of May.

Giving Back to Health-Care Workers          

Aeris will donate 250 cases to healthcare personnel at the Vanderbilt University Medical Center, which they say has been the “core imperative” of their company from the start. 

“They’ve taken very good care of us over the last four years, and they took exceptional care of Isaac and me when we both got sick,” Mr. Medland said. “They delivered us essential medical supplies, so we felt that they had to be the focal point of our donations.” 

Health-care workers from across the country have either purchased or requested donations of cases, and Aeris wants to get them into as many hands as they can. 

“Part of this company’s mission will always be philanthropy, so we will definitely reach out to as many hospitals and affect as many lives as possible,” Mr. Medland said.

No Substitute for Good Hygiene

Because the copper phone case is constantly killing microbes and essentially disinfects itself, it does not require the same level of sanitizing as other cell phone cases, Mr. O’Brien explained. The case can be cleaned with a soft cloth to remove oils and dirt, and to keep its copper surface looking good. 

However, even with a trove of scientific studies supporting copper’s antimicrobial benefits, the Aeris partners are careful not to position their product as a panacea, but rather a way to help reduce viral transmission.

“We think this case will help, but it is one tool in the arsenal of things we have to fight coronavirus with,” Mr. Lichter said. “It won’t replace washing your hands, and you should still use all the precautions recommended by the CDC. We can’t guarantee you won’t get coronavirus or any other disease using this case.”

Making the Most of a Pandemic

In the span of just a few weeks, what started as a Covid-19 recovery diversion became something the three friends – who graduated from Vanderbilt on May 8 – realized could be a good business idea, although their focus remains on helping people and reducing the impact of coronavirus.

“At the beginning, Isaac and I were just really thinking this would just be a fun quarantine project: We’ll help some people out, it will keep us busy, and that will be that,” Mr. Medland said.  “We would love our business to grow, but the goal is to hopefully flatten our current curve and to prevent future ones.” 

Mr. Lichter added, “While we’re at home safe working on this, we wanted to give back to the people who are really suffering right now, and it seemed like the best and easiest way to do that.”

The young entrepreneurs bubble with enthusiasm over copper’s germ-killing power, and they are eager to share information about it. To spread the word, their website provides links to a few of the numerous research studies on copper that help support the claims they make about their case.

“We wanted to make sure we’re doing as good a job as we can of educating people,” Mr. O’Brien explained.  “That’s how we’re going to gain their trust, and that’s how we’re going to really showcase what copper can do.” 

Meg Evans

Meg Evans has written science stories for the Evanston RoundTable since 2015, covering topics ranging from local crayfish, coyotes and cicadas to gravitational waves, medical cannabis, invasive garden...