From materials to detection systems: how hygiene is changing

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For over a century, research has focused on controlling the spread of bacteria and microbes in living spaces. Together with Luigi De Nardo, full professor of Materials Science and Technology at the Milan Politenico, we discussed an upcoming paradigm shift: from materials to detection systems.

The health emergency has driven production towards bactericidal and bacteriostatic materials. Research in this sector began a long time ago – when and in what fields?

Since the late-19th century, many innovations have been developed in an attempt to reduce and control microbial growth in the home, the workplace and the places we inhabit every day. 

An antimicrobial product or an antimicrobial surface is a chemical or physical agent that can kill or inhibit the growth of microorganisms. Agents that kill organisms are known as “-cides”, with a prefix that refers to the type of microorganism killed. Agents that do not kill, but inhibit growth are called “-static” agents (for example, bacteriostatic, fungistatic or viristatic materials).

In this regard, the first attempts focused on understanding how to sanitise surfaces by using chemical or physical agents and on studying materials that were compatible with aggressive agents.

In the 1970s, with the advent of the study of interactions between materials and fabrics for medicine, the first antibacterial surface solutions were developed, guaranteeing a certain degree of effectiveness. Over the last thirty years, research has been systematically extended to all fields, including construction, and effective, efficient solutions have been developed and are now available on the market.

Today, what technologies make it possible to easily sanitise surfaces?

Several technologies enable us to limit the bacterial count on a surface. The first approach is certainly that of simple sanitisation, using materials that are compatible with sanitising liquids and that do not feature, in their design and manufacture, potential areas or sites for adhesion and proliferation that are difficult to reach. 

There are also surfaces that can actively – to varying degrees – prevent proliferation or offer an antibacterial action.

In this regard, there are three main approaches: surfaces with a structure – such as surface patterns – that impede adhesion and proliferation; surfaces with antibacterial elements that are released over time, such as metal ions with an antibacterial effect; surfaces which, activated by an external stimulus, promote bactericidal mechanisms, such as surfaces with a photocatalytic action. 


What does the future hold in store? What innovations should we expect in this field?

For those of us who work in technology, the future is always a harbinger of innovations that improve people’s lives: it is important that we bear this in mind during these difficult times.

Periods of crisis also make us confront the need to review research priorities. In the short term, I therefore expect to see the emergence of solutions adapted to the problem; in the long term, we will witness a redesign that takes hygiene into account in a more wide-ranging, systematic manner, integrating active solutions and technologies that can measure, signal the extent of the action required and control growth rates.