Use of plasma technology will give healthcare workers another way to clean their hands


Even Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon would be amazed to learn that plasma technology is about to deliver a way for healthcare workers to sanitize their hands without using soap and water! Pathologists and clinical laboratory managers will be interested to learn about a novel device that bathes hands with plasma as a way to reduce the spread of microorganisms by healthcare workers, including superbugs like MRSA, an antibiotic-resistant strain of Staphylococcus aureus.

Prototypes already exist and are designed to be simple for healthcare workers to use. They would simply stick their hands into a small box that bathes the hands with plasma that is specifically engineered to zap bacteria, viruses and fungi. The plasma used in the hand sanitizer is a gas similar to that used in fluorescent lights, neon signs, and televisions, but works at room temperature and pressure.

Pictured above is prototype hand sanitizer that uses plasma to kill the unwanted organisms. ( Photo courtesy of the Max Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics)

Pictured above is prototype hand sanitizer that uses plasma to kill the unwanted organisms. ( Photo courtesy of the Max Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics)

Mark Kushner, Ph.D. , Director of the Michigan Institute for Plasma Science and Engineering and Professor at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, was among the first to try out the technology on himself. He cautiously stuck his thumb into a jet of microbe-destroying plasma about five years ago, after a plasma researcher at another lab assured him it was safe. “It was just one of those leaps of faith,” Kushner said in the New York Times article, explaining that thousands of volts drive the generation of plasma, “and normally one doesn’t want to touch thousands of volts.”

As Director of the Max Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics in Garching, Germany, Gregor Morfill, Ph.D., researches plasmas found in space and has a plasma research laboratory on the international space station. He is using knowledge gained in this research to create applications on earth, including healthcare.

Morfill has already developed several hand sanitizer prototypes. One prototype is a portable, battery-operated unit about the size of an electric toothbrush, which could be manufactured for $100 or less and has no expensive parts. Among other uses, Morfill points out that this technology could help bring medical services to remote areas of developing nations where there is no electricity.

Morfill’s devices have been tested on both hands and feet. “It works on athlete’s foot,” he said in a New York Times interview. “The nice thing is you don’t have to take your socks off. They are disinfected too,” Morfill added, noting that socks take a little longer than hands—about 25 seconds.

Plasma has been used for about a decade to sterilize medical instruments, but not human tissue. Plasma cleaners create an antibacterial bath by running electrical current through air, explained David B. Graves, Ph.D., a Professor of Chemical Engineering at the University of California, Berkeley.

He is doing computer simulations of the chemical reactions that occur in the Morfill plasmas. Graves explained in the Times article that electric current ionizes oxygen, nitrogen and water vapor in air, eventually creating nitric oxide, hydrogen peroxide and particles that are effective against bacteria, viruses and fungi.

Research in the field of plasma medicine is growing quickly. According to Kushner, at least 50 research groups globally are working on medical applications for plasma.

For example, Michael G. Kong, Ph.D., a researcher at Loughborough University in Leicestershire, England, has developed a prototype for plasma jets that could be used in air-conditioning systems to clean air in hospital rooms. Gerrit M. W. Kroesen, Ph.D., a Professor of Plasma Physics at the Eindhoven University of Technology in the Netherlands, is focusing on the treatment of burn wounds. “We have seen that plasmas help with disinfection,” he told a Times reporter. “They also stimulate regeneration of tissue.” Other potential applications, include treatment of burns or cancers.

Hand sanitizers for use by healthcare workers will enter the market sooner than other, more complex applications, because their safety is easily demonstrated, according to Alexander Fridman, Ph.D., Director of the Drexel Plasma Institute at Drexel University in Philadelphia. “Hand sanitizers are the low-hanging fruit here,” he said. “We are able to do miracles with this technology, but we have to make sure the treatments are not toxic.”

Clinical laboratories and pathology laboratories are likely to find several uses for plasma technology as a way to kill unwanted organisms. In the meantime, it won’t be long before the first products for plasma-based hand cleaning show up in the nation’s hospitals and health systems.—P. Kirk

Related Information:

Hospital-Clean Hands, Without All the Scrubbing

David B. Graves, Ph.D.

Max Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics in Garching, Germany

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