German company adds a germ killer to its nonstick nanocoating

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HANNOVER, Germany, April 9, 2003 — A nonstick nanocoating that does double duty as a germ killer is being presented at the Hannover Fair industrial trade show this week. Its developers say the new coating, which uses silver nanoparticles that are deadly to fungi and bacteria, could one day generate several hundred million dollars a year.


The surface coating was developed by the Institute for New Materials (INM), a research institute specializing in applied nanotechnology applications based in the southwestern German city of Saarbrucken.

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Researchers at INM created the two-in-one varnish by building on a nonstick coating, developed several years ago, that is already on the market. They added the germicidal ability by sprinkling copious amounts of silver nanoparticles through the coating material (every square centimeter contains more than one billion of the invisible particles) and aligning them so that they release a tiny number of silver ions. These ions are the death knell for fungus and bacteria that might have succeeded in gathering on the surface despite its already dirt-repellent qualities.


“There are already nonstick coatings on the market, and several coatings that kill germs as well,” said Franz Frisch, a spokesman for INM. “But this combination is unique and we think it’s going to be very interesting to industry, thanks to all the possible applications.”


According to Frisch, those applications include any surface where germs can gather and possibly endanger people’s health. That includes surfaces in hospitals, public buildings, factories or in the home. The coating could be applied to almost any surface that people touch often — such as metal, glass or plastic — and would remove the need for constant cleaning with liquid disinfectants, especially in areas where hygenic conditions are crucial. According to INM, making a surface clean and germ-free will require little more than a quick wipe with a damp cloth.


However, the coating is not appropriate for surfaces that have direct and extended contact with food, Frisch said.


While the coating is being officially presented at the Hannover Fair, it is already being used in one real-world application. Audio Service GmbH, Germany’s largest manufacturer of hearing aids, is using the coating in its latest generation of devices. People who normally cannot use hearing aids that lie inside the ear because of the risk of infection of the auditory canal can safely wear Audio Service’s nanocoated appliances.


“It’s a fairly simple idea and substance really,” said INM’s Frisch, “but one with such a broad platform that it can be used just about anywhere.” That, along with his insistence that the new coating will not be much more expensive than traditional ones, is why INM thinks the 5- to-10-micrometer-thick substance that can be sprayed or brushed onto surfaces could generate hundreds of millions of dollars per year.


Claus Hasenkamp of the NeMa, a new materials association in Germany, says those kinds of numbers could be realistic. “More and more companies and manufacturers are realizing the potential behind coatings and nanomaterials,” he said. “In fact, some 25 percent of all companies are potential buyers of new materials products. That’s a big market.”


INM already has a long history of applied nanotech research behind it — long in nanotech terms, that is. Founded in 1988, the company decided to solely concentrate on chemical nanotechnology in 1990, well before most people knew “nano” meant one-billionth of a unit.  In 1991 the institute took out its first patent for a Teflon-like, easy-to-clean surface coating. Today it has more than 90 patents and patent applications under its belt.


The institute’s strategy has always been directed toward the market, according to spokesman Frisch. While INM carries out its fair share of basic research, it has long been interested in finding industrial partners early on and then adapting its product development to industrial applications.


Frisch said that while there has been a virtual explosion of telephone listings under “nano” since 1998 in Germany, when the government actively started supporting and funding nanotech research, far fewer applications have bubbled to the surface. 


“Most of these companies and institutes get very excited and say, ‘Look, see what we can do with this tiny surface!’ and then leave it at that,” he said. “Few ever make a technology out of it.”


INM, on the other hand, has turned its research into a multitude of products, including magnetic liquids used in AIDS tests, coatings that keep organic materials from going up in flames, and nanoceramic materials that can be used in implants that reduce the risk of rejection by the body.


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