The prototype device can kill off bacteria, viruses, and fungi in just seconds… You can even make it battery operated so you can use small devices – I have one in my hand right now – Gregor Morfill
Max Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics
Researchers have demonstrated a prototype device that can rid hands, feet, or even underarms of bacteria, including the hospital superbug MRSA.
The device works by creating something called a plasma, which produces a cocktail of chemicals in air that kill bacteria but are harmless to skin.
A related approach could see the use of plasmas to speed the healing of wounds.
Writing in the New Journal of Physics, the authors say plasmas could help solve gum disease or even body odour.
Plasmas are known as the fourth state of matter, after solid, liquid, and gas. They are a soup of atoms that have had their electrons stripped off by, for example, a high voltage.
Plasmas are common elsewhere in the cosmos, where high-energy processes produce them, and they are even posited as a potential source of fusion energy. Their properties have recently been harvested for use in plasma televisions.
But the new research focuses on so-called cold atmospheric plasmas.
Rather than turning a whole group of atoms into plasma, a more delicate approach strips the electrons off just a few, sending them flying.
Collisions with nearby, unchanged atoms slows down the electrons and charged atoms or ions they leave behind.
It has been known for some time that the resulting plasma is harmful to bacteria, viruses, and fungi – the approach is already used to disinfect surgical tools.
“It’s actually similar to what our own immune system does,” said Gregor Morfill, of the Max Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics, who led the research.
“The plasma produces a series of over 200 chemical reactions that involve the oxygen and nitrogen in air plus water vapour – there is a whole concotion of chemical species that can be lethal to bacteria,” he told BBC News. …
“To produce plasmas efficiently at low cost so you can really mass produce these things for hospitals, that’s the big breakthrough of the last year,” Professor Morfill said.
The team says that an exposure to the plasma of only about 12 seconds reduces the incidence of bacteria, viruses, and fungi on hands by a factor of a million – a number that stands in sharp contrast to the several minutes hospital staff can take to wash using traditional soap and water.
Professor Morfill said that the approach can be used to kill the bacteria that lead to everything from gum disease to body odour.
MRSA (methicillin-resistant Straphylococcus Aureus) and other drug-resistant bacteria could face annihilation as low-temperature plasma prototype devices have been developed to offer safe, quick, easy and unfailing bactericidal cocktails.
Two prototype devices have been developed: one for efficient disinfection of healthy skin (e.g. hands and feet) in hospitals and public spaces where bacteria can pose a lethal threat; and another to shoot bacteria-killing agents into infested chronic wounds and enable a quicker healing process.
Two papers published today, Thursday 26 November, as part of a selection of papers on Plasma Medicine in New Journal of Physics (co-owned by the Institute of Physics and German Physical Society), demonstrate how far the design of equipment to harness the bacteria-killing power of low-temperature plasma has come.
Plasma, oft called the fourth state of matter after solid, liquid and gas, is defined by its ionized state. In space, stars are made up of high-energy plasma and, on Earth, it is researchers in high-energy plasma that are making significant strides towards limitless energy from nuclear fusion. The high energy of plasma stems from some atoms or molecules in a gas being stripped of their electrons, resulting in a mix of ionized and neutral species.
Related links: Max Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics.
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