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New device traps, then zaps, airborne pathogens

Researchers say a new device called a soft X-ray electrostatic precipitator protected mice from airborne bacteria, viruses, and allergens, and could some day be incorporated into HVAC systems.

The team's soft X-ray electrostatic precipitator has a 1-inch radius and is 6 inches tall. Washington University

In the midst of this year's particularly bad flu season, we're reminded just how many nasty little particles roam the air we breathe -- from bacteria and viruses to allergens and diesel exhaust particulates.

But a new device that recently protected immunocompromised mice from these particulates has the potential to be both effective and safe for human use as well, according to researchers behind a new study published in the journal Applied and Environmental Microbiology.

"Small particles are difficult to remove, and our device overcomes that barrier," says Pratim Biswas, who chairs the Department of Energy, Environmental & Chemical Engineering at Washington University. In fact, the device not only traps the particles, it even inactivates them -- and that includes bioterror agents, Biswas says.

Called a soft X-ray electrostatic precipitator (SXC ESP), the device used in the study is cylindrical with a 1-inch radius and 6-inch height. It places a charge on the tiny particles and uses an electrical field to trap them, then irradiating and photoionizing them (the process of ejecting electrons from an atom, ion, or molecule) to thoroughly inactivate biological particles.

Sound too good to be true? The device must withstand the rigors of considerable testing before it can be used in HVAC systems, aircraft cabins, power plants, surgical theaters, and more, but those are just a few of the applications Biswas and his team envision. They even estimate it would cost less than current high efficiency air cleaners.