The inventor: Robert Engel, Ph.D., and two of his now-former students in the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry at Queens College.
The invention: New antibacterial materials derived from substances known as “quats,” shorthand for quaternary ammonium salts, that can be applied to surfaces and even embedded in fabrics.
The ambition: By making surfaces themselves antibacterial, the processes developed in Engel’s lab can be used to make a wide variety of suddenly sanitary products. Arguably the most important would be hospital gowns and bedding, and even equipment surfaces that could fight the spread of infection instead of facilitating it. Engel and his colleagues are in the early stages of licensing the CUNY-patented technology to manufacturers.
In his words: “We knew that in high concentration quats kill bacteria, and we decided to try to bind them to a range of surfaces, to see if we could arrange them in such a way that they would challenge bacteria in a relatively low concentration and could rip a hole in a bacterium when it fell on them. And it worked marvelously. E. coli would be hit by 100,000 of them simultaneously and the quats would just tear the cell wall apart. The key is in the processes we’ve developed for applying the quats to surfaces. In solution, you can’t get them organized — it’s like herding cats. But if you use the surface itself, either binding or embedding them, this makes a very nice system. It works with cloth, paper, wood, paints, cork, and a variety of other surfaces. So we can make the first antibacterial hospital gown. It can also be used in hotel bedding. We can embed it in plastics for athletic gear. It can be used in construction. We can treat wood to kill fungi, or to drive termites away. We’re in the process of negotiating with three operations interested in putting money into it, who would license our process. One of our collaborators is a fabric finisher. We have gone to his plant and we’ve put this on the assembly line and run through 10,000 feet of fabric. It can be scaled up very easily.”