Portable 'cold plasma' wand prototype could destroy germs in seconds

It could sanitize both hard and soft surfaces.

Joseph Xu, University of Michigan Engineering

A team of engineering professors from the University of Michigan have created a plasma jet wand that they believe could quickly and easily disinfect hospital rooms. The ion-emitting device looks something like a Ghostbusters’ proton packs, and its plasma beam can destroy bacteria and viruses in just seconds.

The device produces plasma by running a gas, like air, through a high electric field, which rips electrons off of atoms to tear molecules apart. That creates what the University of Michigan team describes as a soup of charged atoms and molecule fragments. The oxygen-based ions in the plasma then destroy bacteria and viruses by pulling carbon out of their cell walls or protein casings.

Because the wand can sanitize both hard and soft surfaces, it could be a game changer for hospitals and healthcare facilities. While it’s safe to clean most solid surfaces (including your iPhone) with disinfectant wipes, sanitizing fabric and other soft materials isn’t as straightforward. In hospitals, those usually get locked in specialized cabinets that pump in poisonous gases, like hydrogen peroxide. Instead, this handheld device could, for instance, shine over floors and chair cushions, quickly disinfecting both.

The project has already received a rapid response grant from the National Science Foundation. The professors — John Foster, Mirko Gamba and Mark Kushner — hope to use that funding to test and build a portable prototype. They believe that by adding chemicals to the gas used, they might be able to target particular viruses or bacteria.

Unfortunately, the product probably won’t be ready for at least a year. The goal is to deploy it toward the end of the current coronavirus pandemic or to have it ready for future epidemics. When it’s ready, it might also find a use outside of hospitals, like in air planes or buses.