Nanotech For Yuppies

Bruce and the HandlerIt’s good to know that nanotechnology has advanced to the point that we can use it to open gas station restroom doors. At least that’s what I came away with after a conversation with one of my more tech-savvy friends. My pal Bruce is a proud owner of the Handler, a sleek-looking gadget for germophobes. There he is in the picture, using the Handler to open the door to Circa, the Dupont Circle locale where we had brunch. The device’s casing is roughly the size of a car door remote.* In Swiss Army knife fashion, one can eject a rubber-coated hooklike appendage from the casing, which can then be used to touch, say, a door handle or an ATM button. Embedded in the rubber and plastic are silver nanoparticles, which supposedly keep the hook germ-free. I checked the Handler's product website and there is quite a bit of science-speak on there. I didn't do enough reading to gauge how accurate it is. Can any readers who are well-versed in nanotechnology tell? To me, it seemed unlikely that one would be able to embed silver nanoparticles in a piece of plastic and have them still work as antibacterials. My impression was that this sort of thing was being evaluated in a much more basic-research way (for example, by adding nanoparticles to bacteria in petri dishes). But a quick search of the Web and a conversation with C&EN’s own Beth Halford told me that we are using silver in more complex ways than I thought. People have been using silver to kill nasty germs since the Roman Empire’s heyday, Beth writes in this article. She also described a company that makes silver-coated medical devices. (Note: This was back in 2006; I haven't checked to see whether that's still the case.) Rachel Petkewich wrote about socks that contain odor-fighting silver nanoparticles here. Her story describes how silver can leach out of these socks in the washing machine. Maybe the Handler works, but I’d like to see some kind of test results to be sure. Either way, I think you'd have to be slightly Howard Hughes-ish to want to purchase one (sorry, Bruce). I'm also wondering whether silver-nanoparticle-resistant microbes have emerged. The last thing we need is another way to use antibacterials indiscriminately, given the uphill battle we face in developing new ones. *This section was UPDATED  5/21 for the sake of clarity. The original one read: "The device’s casing is roughly the size of a car door remote and it contains silver nanoparticles that are supposed to kill bacteria before they reach your hands. In Swiss Army knife fashion, one can eject a hooklike appendage from the casing, which can then be used to touch, say, a door handle or an ATM button."

Author: Carmen Drahl

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