Healthcare workers often have to wash their hands dozens of times a day — and may need a minute or more to do the process right, by scrubbing with soap and water. But now there are new devices that could reduce the task to just four seconds, cleaning even hard-to-reach areas under fingernails!  Pretty impressive!

Plasma Cleaner
Instead of scrubbing, workers put their hands into a small box that bathes them with plasma — the same sort of luminous gas found in neon signs, fluorescent tubes and TV displays. This plasma, though, is at room temperature and pressure, and is engineered to zap germs, including the drug-resistant supergerm MRSA.

The technology is being developed in several laboratories around the world. One of the prototype creators says the plasma quickly inactivates not only bacteria but also viruses and fungi.  It reportedly works event on athlete’s foot without even taking off your socks!

Plasmas engineered to zap microorganisms aren’t new – in the last decade, they have come into use to sterilize some medical instruments. But using them on human tissue is another matter, said Mark Kushner, director of the Michigan Institute for Plasma Science and Engineering and a professor at the University of Michigan, in Ann Arbor. “Many thousands of volts drive the generation of plasma,” he said, “and normally one doesn’t want to touch thousands of volts.” But the design of the new hand sanitizers, he said, protects people from doing so. Reassured by that design, about five years ago he put his naked thumb into a jet of microbe-destroying plasma at the lab of another plasma researcher.

“It was just one of those leaps of faith,” he said. (His thumb survived just fine.) Research in the field of plasma medicine has grown quickly in the last decade, with at least 50 groups worldwide working on medical uses, Professor Kushner estimated.  He said that there were many documented cases of plasmas being applied for sanitizing skin or other body parts, and “for speeding the rate of blood clotting in wound healing. “Plasmas turn out to have beneficial effects,” he said.

The plasma cleaners make their antibacterial cocktails by running electrical current through air, said David B. Graves, a professor of chemical engineering at the University of California, Berkeley, who has worked on low-temperature plasma applications for 25 years. Professor Graves is doing computer simulations of the chemical reactions that occur in the Morfill plasmas. The electric current ionizes the oxygen, nitrogen and water vapor in the air, he said, eventually creating the nitric oxide, hydrogen peroxide and particles that are so effective against bacteria, viruses and fungi.

Many other cleaning applications of plasma are being researched. In addition to hand sanitizers, Michael G. Kong, a professor of bioelectrics engineering at Loughborough University in Leicestershire, England, has developed a prototype for plasma jets that can be built into air-conditioning systems. As air is transmitted through the system from one hospital room to another, for example, the jets inactivate microorganisms, fungi and viruses in the air.