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Self-cleaning equipment could be on the horizon

26 February 2017

A European team of researchers, led by the University of Parma, is working on a fluid-repellent, antibacterial, metal surface which may bring the production of self-cleaning appliances and machinery a step closer for the food industry. 

The research forms part of TresClean project (High throughput laser texturing of self-cleaning and antibacterial surfaces) promoted in the framework of Horizon 2020, the EU framework programe for research and Innovation. 

The team was inspired by the mechanisms used by plants, such as the lotus which makes its leaves fluid-repellent.

This led to an idea that it would also be possible to create this reduced wettability feature in metal structures which could also prevent of bacterial adhesion.

TresClean team has used high-average power ultrashort-pulsed lasers to create a surface topography on metal which duplicates the lotus leaf surface and prevents liquid adhesion. This topography is able to capture miniature pockets of air that minimise the contact area between the surface and liquids.

Professor Luca Romoli, project coordinator of TresClean explains further: “Lotus leaves keep themselves clean thanks to particular surface texture enabling water to stay as spherical droplets by preventing ‘spreading’. Using the same solution bacteria do not get a chance to stick because the contact with the metal surface and the liquid is reduced significantly. Using lasers it is possible to create an antibacterial topography on the surface of metal materials without adding chemicals.”

The surfaces need to undergo a specific laser marking process, using optical devices traditionally employed for common industrial use. Ultrashort-pulsed lasers, but with high-average power are used in combination with high-performance scanning heads by utilising an innovative beam delivery method enabling movements of up to 200 m/sec.

In this way, technology developed by TresClean is able to perform stainless steel surface marking of 500 square cm in less than 30 minutes. 

Professor Romoli is predicting that TresClean could have its products ready within two years, aiming initially at food industry applications. “Vats in milk factories need to be cleaned every six to eight hours to avoid the exponential growth of bacteria, said Romoli. “This hinders usage and therefore affects output. By saving hours every day in cleaning, it will yield an efficiency improvement stemming from fewer sterilization cycles and less cleaning time within production as a whole. This will also reduce energy consumption as a result of fewer cleaning phases making food production quicker, safer and more profitable”.

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