One promising pilot from Yum Brands’ burgeoning Yum Innovation function is a partnership with Columbia University to test the effectiveness and safety of far-UVC light technology to inactivate viruses.

The partnership between Yum and the Columbia team led by Dr. David Brenner, director of the Center for Radiological Research at the university’s Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons, includes ongoing research and testing of far-UVC lighting technology in a real-world restaurant environment.

“COVID has us looking for ways to keep our stores safer and that is why we became involved in this first-of-its-kind research with Columbia to test far-UVC–to move it out of the lab and into the store, but in a controlled setting,” said Joe Park, vice president of Innovation at Yum Brands. The pilot could take up to a year and will take place in a Taco Bell restaurant during non-operating hours.

The wait should be plenty worth it here. Research from Zogby Analytics finds that 39% of consumers have avoided dining indoors because of air quality fears. Still, customer safety is just one piece of the puzzle for Yum Brands, which includes a global network of 1.5 million essential employees working in restaurants.

“This is as much about team member safety as it is about customer safety. If we can build a safe environment, that will be incredible,” said Gavin Felder, Yum’s chief strategy officer.

A number of restaurants have turned to ultraviolet light devices to kill viruses, from Alexandria Restaurant Partners in Virginia to Magnolia Bakery in New York City to BambooAsia in San Francisco. James Marsden, former head of food safety at Chipotle and former White House advisor, told Forbes in March that ultraviolet light has been well-documented and “creates a very effective anti-microbial which kills viruses on contact.” Yum Brands Is Adding Disruptive Technologies Across Its Global Restaurant System. Here’s How
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Columbia’s researchers released a study in May showing that germicidal UV can inactivate SARS-CoV-2, or the virus that causes COVID-19. Prior to Brenner’s study, there was a high likelihood that germicidal UV could fight COVID-19, but no proven research.

Still, implementing such a solution isn’t cheap. Restaurant Business reported that Silver Diner restaurants have spent about $25,000 per restaurant, or $500,000 across its entire footprint, to deploy a UVC light system, for example.

Here’s where Yum’s massive scale could make a difference if the Columbia partnership yields success.

The team is looking specifically at far-UVC technology, which differs a bit from UVC in that it uses a lower range of wavelengths for disinfection and is safer. However, testing for far-UVC has been more limited than UVC. COVID-19 has shifted that to an all-hands-on-deck approach and Yum’s Columbia partnership could accelerate its applicability even more.

“We know others are looking at UV. Ours is different because it doesn’t harm human eyes, skin or tissue. It kills 99.9% of viruses in the air. We would love to scale this if the economics work,” Park said. “We’re hopeful the research with Dr. Brenner and his team will provide us with a better understanding around the effectiveness of this promising, technology-centric solution and how it could be operationalized in a restaurant environment in the future.”