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Cold Flame

The final step in recovering from a biowarfare attack would be a cleanup of contaminated areas, but liquid cleansing agents could ruin valuable equipment, and chlorine dioxide gas can be corrosive. Now a team at the Los Alamos National Laboratory has designed an alternative dry-decontamination device. In the device, a current between two electrodes ionizes a mixture of helium and oxygen, which spews out in a cloud of charged particles-a plasma that looks like fire but that is only about 70 C (cooler than a hair dryer’s exhaust). The plasma contains a highly reactive form of oxygen that neutralizes pathogens, such as an anthrax surrogate tested by the group. “Cleaning things up without destroying them is our goal,” says physicist Hans Herrmann, leader of the Los Alamos group. His group has successfully tested a two-liter decontamination chamber and is working on a chamber large enough to hold computer equipment. Herrmann has an even bigger vision: a chamber roomy enough to clean up an entire airplane.

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