Page last updated at 07:08 GMT, Thursday, 18 March 2010

Microwave technology sterilises medical equipment

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Dr Andy Wright shows Hywel Griffith how the microwave sterlises equipment

Researchers have come up with a new way of sterilising medical equipment - by using a microwave.

Low-cost technology to kill harmful bacteria has been developed at Glyndŵr University in Wrexham.

Researchers found that by attaching a vacuum vessel to a microwave oven, atomic oxygen and ozone - both aggressive gases - can be generated.

The modified microwave used by the team cost less than £2,000, compared to £70,000 for conventional systems.

The new method, developed by a team led by senior research scientist Dr Andy Wright, provides a chemical-free solution to killing harmful bacteria on medical tools used in GP, dentist and veterinary surgeries.

Vacuum vessel

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

The technology now exists for hospitals, surgeries and dentists to move away from steam-based sterilisation methods
Dr Andy Wright, Glyndŵr University

But with bacteria becoming resistant to such treatments, strong chemicals have been increasingly used in recent years.

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.

The system relies on the intense electric fields generated inside a microwave running at low power. As the microwave turns, the chamber gives off a pink glow.

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

Dr Wright said: "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."

'Cost-effective'

Dr Wright added that the device's small size and low weight means it can be used 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," 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 £2,000.

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



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