Fight Disease With A Raspberry Pi

Despite the best efforts of scientists around the world, the current global pandemic continues onward. But even if you aren’t working on a new vaccine or trying to curb the virus with some other seemingly miraculous technology, there are a few other ways to help prevent the spread of the virus. By now we all know of ways to do that physically, but now thanks to [James Devine] and a team at CERN we can also model virus exposure directly on our own self-hosted Raspberry Pis.

The program, called the Covid-19 Airborne Risk Assessment (CARA), is able to take in a number of metrics about the size and shape of an area, the number of countermeasures already in place, and plenty of other information in order to provide a computer-generated model of the number of virus particles predicted as a function of time. It can run on a number of different Pi hardware although [James] recommends using the Pi 4 as the model does take up a significant amount of computer resources. Of course, this only generates statistical likelihoods of virus transmission but it does help get a more accurate understanding of specific situations.

For more information on how all of this works, the group at CERN also released a paper about their model. One of the goals of this project is that it is freely available and runs on relatively inexpensive hardware, so hopefully plenty of people around the world are able to easily run it to further develop understanding of how the virus spreads. For other ways of using your own computing power to help fight Covid, don’t forget about Folding@Home for using up all those extra CPU and GPU cycles.

Portrait Of A Digital Weapon

Over the years, artists have been creating art depicting weapons of mass destruction, war and human conflict. But the weapons of war, and the theatres of operation are changing in the 21st century. The outcome of many future conflicts will surely depend on digital warriors, huddled over their computer screens, punching on their keyboards and maneuvering joysticks, or using devious methods to infect computers to disable or destroy infrastructure. How does an artist give physical form to an unseen, virtual digital weapon? That is the question which inspired [Mac Pierce] to create his latest Portrait of a Digital Weapon.

[Mac]’s art piece is a physical depiction of a virtual digital weapon, a nation-state cyber attack. When activated, this piece displays the full code of the Stuxnet virus, a worm that partially disabled Iran’s nuclear fuel production facility at Natanz around 2008. Continue reading “Portrait Of A Digital Weapon”

A Brief History Of Viruses

It was around the year 1590 when mankind figured out how to use optical lenses to bring into sight things smaller than the natural eye can observe. With the invention of the microscope, a new and unexplored world was discovered. It will likely be of great surprise to the reader that scientists of the time did not believe that within this new microscopic realm lay the source of sickness and disease. Most would still hold on to a belief of what was known as Miasma theory, which dates back to the Roman Empire. This theory states that the source of disease was contaminated air through decomposing organic materials. It wouldn’t be until the 1850’s that a man by the name of Louis Pasteur, from whom we get “pasteurization”, would promote Germ Theory into the spotlight of the sciences.

Louis Pasteur experimenting in his lab.
Louis Pasteur. Source

Pasteur, considered by many as the father of microbiology, would go on to assist fellow biologist Charles Chameberland in the invention of the aptly named Pasteur Chamberland filter — a porcelain filter with a pore size between 100 and 1000 nanometers. This was small enough to filter out the microscopic bacteria and cells known at that time from a liquid suspension, leaving behind a supply of uncontaminated water. But like so many other early scientific instrumentation inventions it would lead to the discovery of something unexpected. In this case, a world far smaller than 100 nanometers… and add yet another dimension to the ever-shrinking world of the microscopic.

This is when we began to learn about viruses.

Continue reading “A Brief History Of Viruses”

How Researchers Used Salt To Give Masks An Edge Against Pathogens

Masks are proven tools against airborne diseases, but pathogens — like the COVID-19 virus — can collect in a mask and survive which complicates handling and disposal. [Ilaria Rubino], a researcher at the University of Alberta, recently received an award for her work showing how treating a mask’s main filtration layer with a solution of mostly salt and water (plus a surfactant to help the wetting process) can help a mask inactivate pathogens on contact, thereby making masks potentially re-usable. Such masks are usually intended as single-use, and in clinical settings used masks are handled and disposed of as biohazard waste, because they can contain active pathogens. This salt treatment gives a mask a kind of self-cleaning ability.

Analysis showing homogenous salt coating (red and green) on the surface of fibers. NaCl is shown here, but other salts work as well.

How exactly does salt help? The very fine salt coating deposited on the fibers of a mask’s filtration layer first dissolves on contact with airborne pathogens, then undergoes evaporation-induced recrystallization. Pathogens caught in the filter are therefore exposed to an increasingly-high concentration saline solution and are then physically damaged. There is a bit of a trick to getting the salt deposited evenly on the polypropylene filter fibers, since the synthetic fibers are naturally hydrophobic, but a wetting process takes care of that.

The salt coating on the fibers is very fine, doesn’t affect breathability of the mask, and has been shown to be effective even in harsh environments. The research paper states that “salt coatings retained the pathogen inactivation capability at harsh environmental conditions (37 °C and a relative humidity of 70%, 80% and 90%).”

Again, the salt treatment doesn’t affect the mask’s ability to filter pathogens, but it does inactivate trapped pathogens, giving masks a kind of self-cleaning ability. Interested in the nuts and bolts of how researchers created the salt-treated filters? The Methods section of the paper linked at the head of this post (as well as the Methods section in this earlier paper on the same topic) has all the ingredients, part numbers, and measurements. While you’re at it, maybe brush up on commercially-available masks and what’s inside them.

Disinfect PPE On The Cheap With This Hardware Store UV-C Cabinet

The current situation has given closet germaphobes the world over a chance to get out there and clean the hell out of everything. Some of it may be overdone; we ourselves can cop to a certain excess as we wipe down cans and boxes when returning from a run to the grocery store. But sometimes disinfection is clearly indicated, and having an easy way to kill the bugs on things like face masks can make a big difference by extending the life of something that would normally be disposable. That’s where this quick and easy UV-C germicidal cabinet really shines.

The idea behind [Deeplocal]’s “YouVee” is to be something that can be quickly cobbled together from parts that can be picked up at any big-box home store, thereby limiting the number of trips out. You might even have everything needed already, which would make this a super simple build. The business end is a UV-C germicidal fluorescent lamp, of the kind used in clarifiers for backyard ponds. A fluorescent droplight is modified to accept the lamp by snipping off a bit of plastic, and the lamp is attached to the inside of the lid of a sturdy black plastic tote. The interior of the tote is lined with aluminum tape and a stand for items to be disinfected is made from a paint roller screen. The clever bit is the safety interlock; to prevent exposure to UV, the lamp needs to be unplugged before removing the lid. Check out the full build tutorial for details.

We can’t vouch for YouVee’s germicidal efficacy, but it seems like a solid design. If you have doubts, you could always measure the UV-C flux easily, or you could build a smaller version of this peroxide vapor PPE sterilizer, just to be sure.

Continue reading “Disinfect PPE On The Cheap With This Hardware Store UV-C Cabinet”

Behind The Scenes Of Folding@Home: How Do You Fight A Virus With Distributed Computing?

A great big Thank You to everyone who answered the call to participate in Folding@Home, helping to understand proteins interactions of SARS-CoV-2 virus that causes COVID-19. Some members of the FAH research team hosted an AMA (Ask Me Anything) session on Reddit to provide us with behind-the-scenes details. Unsurprisingly, the top two topics are “Why isn’t my computer doing anything?” and “What does this actually accomplish?”

The first is easier to answer. Thanks to people spreading the word — like the amazing growth of Team Hackaday — there has been a huge infusion of new participants. We could see this happening on the leader boards, but in this AMA we have numbers direct from the source. Before this month there were roughly thirty thousand regular contributors. Since then, several hundred thousands more started pitching in. This has overwhelmed their server infrastructure and resulted in what’s been termed a friendly-fire DDoS attack.

The most succinct information was posted by a folding support forum moderator.

Here’s a summary of current Folding@Home situation :
* We know about the work unit shortage
* It’s happening because of an approximately 20x increase in demand
* We are working on it and hope to have a solution very soon.
* Keep your machines running, they will eventually fold on their own.
* Every time we double our server resources, the number of Donors trying to help goes up by a factor of 4, outstripping whatever we do.

Why don’t they just buy more servers?

The answer can be found on Folding@Home donation FAQ. Most of their research grants have restrictions on how that funding is spent. These restrictions typically exclude capital equipment and infrastructure spending, meaning researchers can’t “just” buy more servers. Fortunately they are optimistic this recent fame has also attracted attention from enough donors with the right resources to help. As of this writing, their backend infrastructure has grown though not yet caught up to the flood. They’re still working on it, hang tight!

Computing hardware aside, there are human limitations on both input and output sides of this distributed supercomputer. Folding@Home need field experts to put together work units to be sent out to our computers, and such expertise is also required to review and interpret our submitted results. The good news is that our contribution has sped up their iteration cycle tremendously. Results that used to take weeks or months now return in days, informing where the next set of work units should investigate.

Continue reading “Behind The Scenes Of Folding@Home: How Do You Fight A Virus With Distributed Computing?”

NIH Approved 3D-Printed Face Shield Design For Hospitals Running Out Of PPE

As the world faces a pandemic of monumental proportions, hospitals have been hit hard. The dual problems of disrupted manufacturing and supply chains and huge spikes in demand have led to many medical centres running out of protective gear. Makers have stepped up to help in many ways by producing equipment, with varying results. [Packy] has shared a link to a 3D-printable face shield that, unlike some designs floating around, is actually approved by the National Institute of Health in the USA.

The shield consists of a 3D printed headband, which is then coupled with a transparent piece of plastic for the face shield itself. This can be lasercut, or sourced from a document cover or transparency sheet. The design is printable in PLA or a variety of other common materials, and can be assembled easily with office supplies where necessary.

The design is available from the NIH here. (Update: 4/1/2020 here’s an alternate link as original link seems to be suffering from heavy server load) For those eager to help out, it’s important to do so in an organised fashion that doesn’t unduly take resources away from healthcare professionals trying to get an important job done. We’ve seen other hacks too, such as these 3D printed ventilator components being rushed into service in Italy.