What would it be like to have clothing that killed microbes? Or paper that repelled pathogens? A research team from Rutgers University has developed a prototype out of metalized paper to zap the bad guys without being super expensive. Sound good? Read on.
In a study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, scientists from Rutgers University and the University of Florida were looking for a way to deactivate microbes on a variety of surfaces, and potentially, for a variety of uses.
After the Ebola outbreak in 2014, researchers started looking for new materials to improve personal protective wear. As you may recall, even with the biohazard suits, some medical personnel were still exposed to the deadly virus. This research contributes a new kind of tech, plasma generators in paper, which can deliver a zap that deactivates E. coli and fungus in tests.
A plasma generator? While it sounds more like sci-fi than science, the research team designed and created a type of "smart" paper that is flexible enough to use for garments or protective coatings. By adding voltage, the team creates plasma, a state of matter described as "a combination of heat, ultraviolet radiation, and ozone."
Paper plus plasma kills microbes. Simple, right?
Obviously, it is a lot more complex than that. The paper is layered with honeycomb-patterned aluminum, and covered in conductive silver ink, like the picture below. There are multiple sheets stacked and bonded together. The electronics involve sensors, electrodes, and carefully oscillated high-voltage.
In tests that included direct contact, and non-contact, experiments, the prototype demonstrated prodigious efficiency for killing fungus and bacteria. Consider:
- The plasma generator deactivated more than 99% of Sacharomyces cerevisiae. A representative of the fungus family, S. cerevisiae is a common form of yeast used for baking bread and making wine; commonly known as brewer's yeast.
- In similar experiments, the technology had the same effect on Escherichia coli — a 99% deactivation rate.
- In further testing, involving contaminants on the metalized paper, the paper "also treated itself and removed Bacillus (bacteria) from its fibrous interior."
In the personal protective wear industry, definitions make a difference. "Sanitization" is a process that reduces populations of microbes. "Disinfection" takes those numbers down further and "sterilization" both decontaminates and kills the microbes. The authors note that "plasma-based treatments have the potential to provide comparable sterilization to conventional methods that use heat, chemicals, or radiation."
In a press release, author and doctoral candidate Qiang Chen, said: "Preliminary results showed that our sanitizers can kill spores from bacteria, which are hard to kill using conventional sterilization methods."
While more research and development is needed, the potential applications of low-cost, high-efficiency protective material might include:
- Self-sanitizing paper garments that decontaminate themselves, reducing the spread and share of dangerous pathogens in hospital and research settings.
- Touchpads are known for being highly contaminated. This technology could create self-sanitizing touch sensors or devices that sanitize themselves after being touched.
- Skin-sensors and self-sanitizing bandages could reduce infection rates and spread.
- Self-cleaning biomedical devices and equipment — among other potential uses.
Up next for this team is adapting this research to investigate "papertronic" sensors that function like animal skin for protection, but with capabilities to detect environmental inputs — like moisture, temperature, and pressure.
Plasma paper that knocks out pathogens and picks up environmental input — better than sci-fi!