Lightning-inspired device zaps food germs, shows study

The Tribo-sanitizer is a self-powered device that uses a UVC lamp to inactivate bacteria that cause foodborne illness on fresh produce, food packaging and surfaces. Credit: Fred Zwicky.

Scientists at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign have made a big leap in food safety with their new invention, the Tribo-sanitizer.

This portable device uses a special kind of light called ultraviolet-C (UVC) to kill harmful bacteria on food, and the best part is, it’s self-powered!

The Tribo-sanitizer gets its juice from the triboelectric effect.

This might sound complicated, but it’s just a fancy way of saying it generates electricity when two different materials rub together. Think of it like static electricity.

This clever design allows the device to work without needing to be plugged in, making it really handy in places where power is hard to come by.

In their tests, the scientists used the Tribo-sanitizer to target two major bad guys in the world of foodborne illnesses: E. coli O157:H7 and Listeria monocytogenes.

These bacteria are notorious for causing serious health issues, from stomach cramps and diarrhea to even more severe conditions. The device worked by damaging the DNA of these bacteria, effectively stopping them in their tracks.

The team tried the Tribo-sanitizer on different surfaces like apple peels, lettuce, and a type of plastic often used in food packaging (PET).

The results were impressive. For E. coli in liquid and on the plastic, the device killed more than 99.999% of the bacteria. On the apple peels and lettuce, it got rid of about 99.98% and 99.8% of E. coli, respectively, and around 99.9% and 98% of Listeria.

These numbers show that the Tribo-sanitizer is right up there with other UV light sanitizers that need to be plugged in.

The device’s design includes an air gap that mimics lightning by breaking down air electrostatically. This boosts its voltage to over 4,000 volts, making the UVC lamp brighter and more effective.

But, there’s a catch. This UV light method works best when it can directly hit the surface it’s trying to clean. So, for tricky surfaces like the nooks and crannies of lettuce leaves or the rough skin of an apple, it might not reach every spot.

The team is thinking about ways to fix this, like using multiple lights from different angles.

One cool aspect of the Tribo-sanitizer is how it can work on the go. Imagine it being used in trucks transporting food, constantly zapping away germs during the journey.

This is great because the device currently needs about 90 minutes to wipe out 99.999% of E. coli, which is quite a bit of time. But in situations like long-haul transportation, that wouldn’t be a big problem.

Foodborne illnesses are a huge global issue, affecting millions of people and costing billions of dollars every year. The Tribo-sanitizer could be a game-changer in tackling this problem.

What’s more, it’s not just for big businesses. With a material cost of less than $70, regular folks could use it at home to keep their food safe. And its ability to work without electricity makes it perfect for places hit by natural disasters or conflicts where power is scarce.

The team behind the Tribo-sanitizer is still working to make it even better.

But as it stands, this device could be a key player in our fight against foodborne diseases, bringing a new level of safety to our meals, whether at home or on the move.