Copper: The Defender of the Periodic Table | Inherent Antimicrobial Properties | Corning

Copper: The Defender

Copper: The Defender

Your home most likely features copper wiring, and possibly copper plumbing and roofing components as well. Copper is widely used as a structural material due to its durability, resistance to corrosion, and extremely high thermal and electrical conductivity. But when it comes to glass and ceramics, its role has primarily been decorative. Copper has been used for centuries as a pigment to impart a blue or green tint to various materials. Yet this metal possesses a superpower that materials scientists have been eager to tap: inherent antimicrobial properties. The challenge is how to activate them in a glass or ceramics application. And Corning has come up with a solution.

“People have known about copper’s antimicrobial properties for years. And because of its solubility, we knew we could put lots and lots of it into glass,” says Corning fellow Dr. Tim Gross.  “However, no one could figure out a way to get the ions to migrate out of the glass and onto the surface where they put those antimicrobial properties to work.”

Until Gross and his team came along, that is.  They recently developed a revolutionary glass-ceramic that provides strong antimicrobial action through a controlled release of copper ions. The technology has the potential to be a game changer for places like hospitals where infections are a serious problem, as well as marine equipment and facilities that are vulnerable to mold and mildew. But it could be beneficial in any environment where there are many users touching a surface.

It’s not Corning’s first foray into antimicrobial materials.  In 2013, Corning developed the world’s first antimicrobial cover glass by incorporating silver ions into Corning® Gorilla® Glass. However, there are notable differences between the innovations. While silver is the preferred antimicrobial agent for highly transparent materials (such as the cover glass on mobile devices), copper has stronger antimicrobial properties overall, and they are active in a broader range of environments. The form factor also differs.

Glass-ceramics differ from glass in their fundamental structure and properties. They begin with similar ingredients and a traditional glass melting process. However, glass-ceramics involve the addition of a nucleating agent.  When the composition is reheated, nuclei form and then crystals form around the nuclei. When enough crystals have formed and reach the desired size, the material is quickly cooled. The result is a glass-ceramic that features different properties than glass.

The world’s first glass-ceramic, invented by Dr. Donald Stookey in 1952, featured exceptional thermal resistance and spawned the legendary CorningWare® line of cookware. So how do Corning scientists plan to put this new copper-containing glass-ceramic to use?  Corning is currently experimenting with incorporating the material into latex paint in powder form. “It’s new terrain for a glass-ceramic,” says Gross. “It wouldn’t be the first crystalline material added to paint. For example, titanium is added as a brightening agent or to increase opacity. But we would be the first to add a crystalline antimicrobial material.”

Early trials been extremely encouraging, with the paint exhibiting a greater than 99.9% reduction in colony counts for various bacteria when evaluated by test methods used by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. So the next time you add color to your walls, you may be able to add superpowers, too.

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