Hot and dirty is out, plasma is in

New plasma sterilization process could replace expensive, polluting systems.

Medical instrument sterilization is a hot, dirty, expensive business involving chemicals, ozone-depleting aerosols and hazardous waste, but a new plasma technology promises to change the way we kill germs.

Conceptual illustration of the Steriglow Sterilization System Atmospheric Glow Technologies

Atmospheric Glow Technologies of Knoxville, Tenn., is building a portable medical device called the Steriglow Sterilization System that it says will produce no waste or heat and costs much less to operate than existing technologies.

The process takes plasma, the same stuff found in flat-screen TVs, and creates "short-lived reactive chemical species from air" that neutralizes all biocontaminants. Viruses, bacteria, fungi--it kills them all. It's so effective that it even kills biological warfare agents such as anthrax.

The Steriglow uses "OAUGDP" technology (One Atmospheric Uniform Glow Discharge Plasma) developed at the University of Tennessee Research Foundation to neutralize "all known classes of microorganisms" without resorting to dangerous chemicals, radiation, high temperatures or pressure and without damaging sensitive equipment. Part of the research was funded by the Defense Department and the National Institutes of Health.

Its manufacturer sees a market for this system for military and disaster-response personnel, as well as other ambulatory surgical centers and dental clinics. The plasma prototype is able to sterilize surgical instruments in less than an hour, according to the company--all you need is a place to plug it in. Traditional methods generally take much longer.