NN's bravest, finest to help test a killer fabric

Newport News police and fire units and Jefferson Lab will try out a laser-treated material that kills germs on contact.

NEWPORT NEWS — Before unleashing the germ-killing power of laser-treated nylon, Newport News scientist Michael Kelley must prove the fabric is durable and affordable.

The test to figure out how long and how well killer nylon kills outside the laboratory will begin some time in January when 200 swatches of 8-inch-by-8-inch white cloth are put in places where Newport News police officers and firefighters work, such as squad cars and equipment rooms.

The fabric has the potential to become as common a precaution against germs as anti-bacterial soap. It could also become another line of defense for emergency responders dealing with deadly diseases such as anthrax or bird flu.

Maybe. Perhaps.

"If it doesn't stand up, we don't have to make it cheap because it's not going to get used," said Kelley, a professor at the College of William and Mary who works at the Thomas Jefferson National Accelerator Facility, commonly known as Jefferson Lab, in Newport News.

The U.S. Department of Homeland Security will spend about $192,000 to pay for the test, which will determine how well the fabric's killing power holds up in work situations over six months.

"It's worth exploring if it offers any potential at all to protect emergency responders or industrial workers," said Jack Williamson, Newport News emergency management coordinator. "Without doing things like this, you'll never know where it could go."

Kelley was on a team of inventors 15 years ago that discovered that a low-level flash of ultraviolet light from a laser could change the chemical structure of nylon, turning its surface into a microbe murderer.

Back then, ultraviolet lasers cost a lot more to operate, and nearly no one wanted to buy such material.

Today is different.

Lasers — such as the one at Jefferson Lab — are better, cheaper and more widely used. The possibility of biological terrorist attacks and global epidemics has spurred demand.

Kelley doesn't worry about bacteria building up resistance to the fabric because it kills by corroding a microbe's exterior surface.

He does wonder if the nylon will keep wiping out germs after brushing across the back of a car seat every day or after cycling repeatedly through a washing machine.

If testing is successful, Kelley and his team will then test items made from the nylon, such as clothing, furniture covers and air filters.

Still, research could continue for 10 years or more before a product becomes available commercially.

"It's a step," Kelley said. "We're learning."