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Researchers at Glyndŵr University use £40 microwave oven to sterilise medical equipment

18 February 2010

Researchers at Glyndŵr University have developed technology for producing a portable device for sterilising medical equipment – using a £40 microwave oven.

The everyday kitchen device has been used to deliver a low cost, chemical-free solution to killing harmful bacteria on medical tools used in GP, dentists and veterinary surgeries.

The research has been led by Dr Andy Wright, Senior Research Scientist at Glyndŵr University.

Traditionally, steam at high temperatures has been used to sterilise medical instruments before being used on patients.

However, with bacteria becoming more resistant to such treatments, aggressive chemicals have increasingly been used in recent years.

Now, researchers at the University’s Advanced Materials Unit have discovered that by attaching a vacuum vessel to a microwave oven, plasma discharges can be generated in the form of atomic oxygen and ozone – both aggressive gases highly effective in killing bacteria.

The system relies on the intense electric fields generated inside a microwave running at low power.

Dr Wright said that tests have shown the technology to be just as effective as existing steam-based methods of sterilisation, if not more - but at a fraction of the cost.

The device is capable of sterilizing equipment in five minutes or less with air.

He said: “The oven we chose is the simplest type commercially available and with the modifications we made the cost of the system comes to under £2000.

"The most reliable sterilisation systems currently cost around £70,000, making this very cost-effective.

“The technology now exists for hospitals, surgeries and dentists to move away from steam-based sterilisation methods and take up a plasma-based approach that has been shown to be 100% effective against the most difficult pathogens.

"And as the cost is far less, it’s well suited for use in small doctor, dentist or veterinary surgeries.

"Items such as small surgical instruments can be quickly sterilised prior to use.

“However, one of the main advantages is its small size and low weight.

"It means it can also be used easily by military field hospitals when coupled with a small portable generator.

"Instruments do not have to be sent away for treatment and the cost of using disposable items can be reduced.”

The technology for the system was developed out of the University’s basic research into nano-structured thin film materials, used to produce devices such as self-cleaning glass and hard coatings in engineering.

Research into thin films and their characterisation forms the core of the Advanced Materials Research Unit’s activities. The research laboratory is one of six materials science research centres at Glyndŵr University.

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