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Corning's germ-fighting glass means you can touch an ATM with less worry

The special glass is just beginning to make its way into public displays such as ATMs and payment terminals, but Corning hopes it will eventually get into consumer electronics.

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A bug-killing ATM, expected to launch later this year, may be just the beginning for Corning's new antimicrobial glass. Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

The modern world is awash with public touch screens, from airplane TVs to ATMs to deli-counter kiosks. And with all those shared screens comes more potential to share germs.

Glassmaker Corning, whose tough Gorilla Glass displays front Apple's iPhone and Samsung's new Galaxy S6, is hoping to make our more-touchable electronics world a little less grimy, thanks to its antimicrobial version of Gorilla. The new product, introduced last year, is now making its way into more public places, with Corning in January announcing deals to bring the germ-fighting glass to ATMs and payment terminals. The glass is already on an office touch screen made by Steelcase used to book conference rooms.

Antimicrobial Gorilla Glass is one of the ways Corning is working to make its blockbuster glass more useful in more areas, including bringing an antireflective Gorilla to operating room displays, and strengthening the material and making it more scratch-resistant to make Gorilla more desirable for the automotive and interior architecture industries. If Corning can convince people that they want a glass that prevents the sniffles, it could expand Gorilla's reach well beyond its base in smartphones, potentially for use on surfaces in hospitals, food storage facilities or public transportation.

"We absolutely would like to look at this much more broadly," said Joydeep Lahiri, who heads Corning's specialty surfaces program, adding that his company is looking into introducing the glass into consumer electronics and healthcare.

It's hard to tell, though, whether consumers will push to make more surfaces germ-resistant. For its part, Corning avoids making any health claims about the new material. However, as the first antimicrobial glass registered with the US Environmental Protection Agency -- a requirement for any product sold as a pesticide -- it does need to work as advertised if it purports to kill germs.

Antimicrobial Gorilla Glass is embedded with ionic silver to help it repel bacteria, fungi, mold, mildew and algae. Silver was the antibiotic of choice before penicillin (that's how sayings about silver spoons and silver bullets originated), but it's now used in all kinds of products to prevent microbe growth. Nanoparticles of the stuff -- called nanosilver -- can be used on poultry, raw fruits and vegetables and food packaging to kill food-borne pathogens, are added to toothpaste and cosmetics to keep them safer and are even placed in some socks to fight off odor and athlete's foot.

"Nanosilver is by far the most widely used nanoparticle in commerce right now," said Pedro Alvarez, an engineering department chairman at Rice University who's studied ionic silver for years.

Alvarez said there are already a handful of "silly" places ionic silver is used, such as those odor-fighting socks, which he said lose their special powers in the wash. Still, he said, putting antimicrobial Gorilla Glass in a refrigerator or other places where food is stored could be a beneficial way to help prevent food from spoiling.

Giving Gorilla Glass those new properties was no small feat. Lahiri said the company spent millions of dollars in research and development to add silver to the glass while maintaining the same damage resistance as regular Gorilla Glass. The company claims that because the silver is inside the glass, its antimicrobial properties can last for the life of a product.

For Diebold, the bug-killing glass started it on a new path in thinking about its machines, which can last more than a decade. The leading ATM supplier in North America, which is bringing Corning's glass to its newest machines, is now considering an ATM that fends off bacteria and bugs in other ways. Chris Rowe, vice president of hardware and system engineering, said his company is discussing the idea of an ATM that has an antimicrobial agent in the PIN pad and could even zap the cash -- perhaps the dirtiest part of any ATM -- with UV light to kill off microorganisms.

"The Corning piece planted that seed," Rowe said.

He added that some of Diebold's largest banking customers have expressed interest in the new Gorilla Glass-faced ATMs, though the company won't launch the machines until around the third quarter of this year.

Ionic silver is among a handful of developments being considered to imbue more products with germ-fighting capabilities. For instance, Alvarez said researchers are also looking into creating surfaces that replicate shark skin, which discourages bacteria from attaching to it. Also, copper is another potential material to killing microbes, though is less effective than silver, he added.

Electronics and displays with antimicrobial capabilities will likely come at an added price, due to extra metals or special manufacturing processes. But if they actually work in staving off a cold, they may find a place in the market.

"We hope it's significant, but these are early days," Corning's Lahiri said.