Imagine window drapes that destroy germs, eliminating mold and the allergies that come with it. Or food-wrapping film that kills bacteria before it has a chance to contaminate meats, and germ-killing air filters that can be placed in air conditioners.
A group of professors and graduate students at the College of William and Mary's Applied Science Department at the Jefferson Lab in Newport News are working on an intense ultraviolet lamp they say will do just that.
When directed onto materials such as nylon, the lamp creates chemical reactions that produce protective layers and keep the materials germ- free.
"We can make it do different types of chemical reactions the older lamps can't do," said Michael Kelley, professor of applied science at William and Mary. "You can make it so any kind of germs that would land on that thing would die."
The invention recently received a patent from the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office in Washington, D.C. Work is continuing as the inventors look to make it marketable. The lamp is the first to receive a patent since William and Mary started a technology transfer program last May that helps student and faculty at the school obtain patents.
Ultraviolet lamps with mercury are used today to create chemical reactions such as the curing of tooth fillings at a dentist office. They are also used on wood flooring or furniture finish to make a protective coating. They replace methods that use solvents, which can be harmful.
Kelley says his group's invention would be an improvement over the mercury lamps.
"Our goal was to make a lamp with no hazardous gases," Kelley said. "Our lamps have better electrical efficiency and it makes wavelength of UV light that mercury lamps can't produce. We couldn't do the nylon trick with mercury lamps."
Kelley actually came up with the idea in the late 1980s while a researcher at Dupont, the industrial manufacturing giant. At the time, he said they knew lasers could cause the chemical reaction they wanted, but the cost was too much for what they wanted to do.
While still at Dupont, Kelley got the company to partner with William and Mary to research the lamps. He started working with Dennis Manos, professor of applied science at the college, and doctoral candidates Jessie Diggs and Joseph Ametepe, who graduated in 1999.
When Dupont's focus turned to other types of research, Kelley joined the William and Mary faculty last year and brought the entire ultraviolet lamp program with him.
Together, the research team has discovered methods of making high-powered short-wavelength ultraviolet lamps that are many times cheaper than lasers and free of toxic gases. Kelley said the ultraviolet light costs about 1 percent the expense of lasers. For example, it may cost several dollars per square yard to treat materials using lasers. The same amount of light from an ultraviolet lamp would cost about one cent.
Kelley hopes to one day commercialize the lamps to the point that butchers would have modified versions to easily treat meat packing material. Or treated filters could be placed in air systems in confined places such as planes or submarines.
Kelley said his group needs to perform tests to see how much of an effect the treated materials really have on an environment. For example, air blowing from a vent may be germ-free, but that doesn't keep a sick person from sneezing on their co-worker.
Work is continuing on the lamps with the help of the Commonwealth Research Board, Jefferson Lab, Temple University Hospital and corporate partners Dupont and the Kellogg Co. Kelley said they hope to have tests completed this summer.
"We need to show we can make many, many square yards of this stuff and it's all uniform," Kelley said. "We've got to be able to do it cheap enough for people to use it."
Along with making money from the commercial use of the lamps, Kelley hopes the invention attracts more graduate students with an interest in applied science to the field, as well as attracts more research opportunities for his department.
"It's more than an invention," he said. "It's a program that is going to go forward to do other things."
Submitted: Saturday, December 30, 2000 - 1:00am