Hospital nurses and health professionals could soon be wearing uniforms brushed with tiny copper nanoparticles to reduce the spread of bacterial infections and viruses, according to researchers.
Scientists at Manchester University, working in collaboration with universities in China, have created a “durable and washable, concrete-like” material made from antibacterial copper nanoparticles.
“It has huge potential for modern medical and healthcare applications”
They have also developed a way of binding the composite to wearable materials such as cotton and polyester, which has proved a stumbling block for scientists in the past.
The researchers noted that Escherichia coli (E. coli) infections alone killed more than 5,500 patients in 2015 and government estimates put the cost to the NHS of such infections at £2.3bn each year.
Meanwhile, they noted that precious metals, such as gold and silver, were known for their excellent antibacterial and antimicrobial properties, but their commercial use in textiles was prohibited by the high costs.
As a result, copper was the “material of choice” for researchers looking at antimicrobial agents for materials, they said, because it had very similar properties to gold and silver but was much cheaper.
“We hope we can commercialise the advanced technology within a couple of years”
However, the researchers said that prior to their breakthrough, techniques for binding copper to materials like cotton for medical and antimicrobial textile production had limitations.
Now, using a process called “polymer surface grafting”, they have successfully tethered copper nanoparticles to cotton and polyester using a polymer brush, creating a strong chemical bond.
The researchers said the bond had led to excellent washable properties and durability and these developments could finally see copper-covered uniforms and textiles commercialised in the future.
Lead author Dr Xuqing Liu said: “Now that our composite materials present excellent antibacterial properties and durability, it has huge potential for modern medical and healthcare applications.”
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The researchers tested their copper nanoparticles on cotton as the material is used more widely than any other natural fibre and polyester because it is a typical polymeric, manmade material.
Each material was brushed with the tiny copper nanoparticles that measure between 1-100 nanometres (nm) – 100nm is the equivalent to just 0.0001 millimetres (mm).
The team found their cotton and polyester coated-copper fabrics showed excellent antibacterial resistance against both Staphylococcus aureus and E. coli, even after being washed 30 times.
When compared with the traditional process of copper coating, the polymer brush technique developed at the university was far more effective, said the researchers whose findings are published in the Journal of Nanomaterials.
Hospital outbreaks ‘could be reduced by copper-coated uniforms’
Dr Liu said: “These results are very positive and some companies are already showing interest in developing this technology.
“We hope we can commercialise the advanced technology within a couple of years,” he said. “We have now started to work on reducing cost and making the process even simpler.”