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June 11, 2020

New Wave

Not quite a coronavirus-fighting lightsaber, but a personal, handheld device emitting high-intensity ultraviolet light to disinfect areas by killing bacteria and viruses may now be feasible. That's according to NSF-funded researchers at Penn State together with scientists at the University of Minnesota, University of Tokyo, and Tohoku University.

Credit: National Science Foundation/Karson Productions

Lights along the path-ogen.

I'm Bob Karson with the Discovery Files, from the National Science Foundation.

UV light in the right range and amount is effective for disinfecting surfaces, even destroying germs in the air. (Sound effect: NY subway sound) Public spaces like the New York subways are being given UV treatments as a pandemic precaution. The equipment typically used is bulky, expensive, and sucks tons of power.

A team from Penn State, the University of Minnesota and two Japanese universities, says the solution is UV LEDs. The problem? You need an electrode material that's sufficiently transparent to UV light -- that lets enough of it out there to provide a dosage that'll kill all the viruses. The best choice for that kind of UV-transparent material? There isn't one right now.

The researchers thought the answer might be found in a recently discovered new class of transparent conductors. Their predictions pointed to Strontium Niobate (strahn-tee-um nye-oh bait). Tests proved it held up to its promise. The team says their subsequent success -- using an industry-standard manufacturing technique -- shows Strontium Niobate can be integrated into UV LEDs at low cost on a wide scale.

Killing Coronavirus with a hand-held device may now be feasible. The new technology could help disinfect areas from public spaces to building HVAC systems. So, can I get one for my fridge?

"The discovery files" covers projects funded by the government's National Science Foundation. Federally sponsored research -- brought to you, by you! Learn more at or on our podcast.

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