An international team of scientists has created a handheld, battery powered device that has been shown to effectively rid skin of bacteria in an instant by blasting it with plasma. The plasma flashlight, which shouldn’t be confused with a plasma torch that will damage much more than bacteria if used on the skin, could provide a convenient way for paramedics and military personnel to deal with harmful bacteria in the field.

The self-contained device is powered by a 12 V battery and doesn’t require any external gas feed or handling system. The plume of plasma it generates is between 20-23°C (68-73.4°F), so it won’t damage the skin. It is also fitted with resistors to stop it heating up and becoming too hot to touch. Its creators say it can also be easily manufactured at a cost of less than US$100 per unit.

In an experiment carried out by the scientists, the plasma flashlight effectively inactivated thick biofilms of Enterococcus faecalis, a bacterium that often infects the root canals in dental treatments and is highly antibiotic- and heat-resistant. Created by incubating the bacteria for seven days, the biofilms consisted of 17 different layers of bacteria. After treating each biofilm with the plasma flashlight for five minutes, the plasma was found to penetrate deep into the very bottom layer and inactivate the bacteria.

“In this study we chose an extreme example to demonstrate that the plasma flashlight can be very effective even at room temperature,” said co-author of the study, Professor Kostya (Ken) Ostrikov, from the Plasma Nanoscience Centre Australia, CSIRO Materials Science and Engineering. “For individual bacteria, the inactivation time could be just tens of seconds.”

While plasma has previously been shown to effectively kill bacteria and viruses on the surface of the skin and water, the exact mechanism behind this is still not understood. Ultraviolet radiation has been theorized as a reason, but the jet created by the plasma flashlight is low in UV radiation, which adds to the safety of using the device on a person’s skin. The reactions between the plasma and the surrounding air has also been suggested as another possibility.

The international team behind the plasma flashlight consists of scientists from Huazhong University of Science and Technology, CSIRO Materials Science and Engineering, The University of Sydney and the City University of Hong Kong. Their work is detailed in the Journal of Physics D: Applied Physics.

Source: Institute of Physics