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KNOXVILLE — A University of Tennessee professor has developed a method to kill dangerous microbes without destroying the surfaces where they live.

Dr. J. Reece Roth’s work has won for him the B. Otto and Kathleen Wheeley Award for excellence in technology transfer. UT gives the award to faculty members who make academic research available for private-sector development.

The new sterilization process may have application in hospitals and in filtering systems, Roth said.

“Making an effort to transfer inventions to commercial use can be a rewarding experience for a faculty member,” said Dr. Michael Devine, UT-Knoxville vice chancellor for research. “Dr. Roth is exemplary in securing numerous patents, working with a great many colleagues, the UT Research Corp. and private developers.”

Roth, professor of electrical and computer engineering at UT-Knoxville, leads an interdisciplinary team of UT researchers seeking applications for the one-atmosphere, uniform glow-discharge plasma he developed in his research.

“I’m very pleased to receive the Wheeley award,” Roth said. “It would not have been possible without the strengths of the university and the cooperation of its faculty and graduate students.”

The Wheeley Foundation funds the award. Otto Wheeley is a UT alumnus who retired from the Koppers Corp. He oversees a venture capital fund.

Plasma is a state of matter, in solid, liquid and gaseous form, where individual atoms are broken into charged particles.

Roth’s team creates plasma by energizing the air between two metal plates using high-voltage radio-frequency power. It is unusual because it does not create heat nor require vacuums or changes in air pressure, he said.

The technology offers the possibility of sterilizing surgical equipment and hospital rooms, decontaminating military equipment that has been exposed to biological warfare agents, and sterilizing air filters in heating and air conditioning systems, said Dr. Kimberly Kelly-Wintenberg, a UT microbiologist who is one of Roth’s collaborators.

“There’s a great need for new sterilization-decontamination technologies in health care,” said Kelly-Wintenberg, who is one of the principal investigators with Roth and Dr. Thomas Montie. Some medical equipment is made of soft materials like plastics that would be damaged by steam cleaning and other methods that use high heat and pressure, she said.

Kelly-Wintenberg said the sterilization effects come when the plasma-derived charged particles disrupt the cell membranes of microorganisms like E. coli or Staphylococcus aureus.

Roth and his colleagues have received six patents on the technology thus far. The Environmental Protection Agency is supporting the research.

The researchers also are working on a plasma reactor in backpack form, much like a leaf blower, which will force the charged particles onto surfaces outside of the reactor. Roth said the portable unit could decontaminate the cockpit of an aircraft contaminated by biological warfare agents.

The U.S. Air Force Office of Scientific Research is supporting this work through a contract with Environmental Elements Corp. in Baltimore, Md.