Tuesday, December 1, 2009

Device spells doom for superbugs

By Jason Palmer
Science and technology reporter, BBC News

Plasma bacteria killer (New Journal of Physics)
The prototype device can kill off bacteria, viruses, and fungi in just seconds

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.

Deadly cocktail
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.
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
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 concoction of chemical species that can be lethal to bacteria," he told BBC.

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