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Nanosecond bacteria inactivation realized by locally enhanced electric field treatment


Bacterial contamination in water is still a critical threat to public health; seeking efficient water disinfection approaches is of great significance. Here we show that locally enhanced electric field treatment (LEEFT) by electrodes modified with nanoscale tip structures can induce ultrafast bacteria inactivation with nanosecond electrical pulses. A lab-on-a-chip device with gold nanowedges on the electrodes is developed for an operando investigation. Attributed to the lightning-rod effect, the bacteria at the nanowedge tips are inactivated by electroporation. A single 20 ns pulse at 55 kV cm−1 has achieved 26.6% bacteria inactivation, with ten pulses at 40 kV cm−1 resulting in 95.1% inactivation. LEEFT lowers the applied electric field by about 8 fold or shortens the treatment time by at least 106 fold, compared with the system without nanowedges. Both Gram-positive and Gram-negative bacteria, including antibiotic-resistant bacteria, are inactivated with nanosecond pulses by LEEFT. According to simulation, when the membrane of the cell located at the nanowedge tip is directly charged by the concentrated charges at the tip, it is charged much faster and to a much higher level, leading to instant electroporation and cell inactivation.

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Fig. 1: Bacteria inactivation by nanosecond pulses at the nanowedge tips.
Fig. 2: Antimicrobial performance of LEEFT.
Fig. 3: Investigation of the bacteria inactivation mechanism.
Fig. 4: Theoretical analysis of the ultrafast cell electroporation in LEEFT.

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Data availability

The data supporting the findings of this study are available within the paper and Supplementary Information. Source data are provided with this paper. All other data are available from the authors on reasonable request.

Code availability

The scripts for data analysis were developed in MATLAB (version 2021b, MathWorks) and are available from the authors on reasonable request.


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The authors acknowledge the financial support from the National Science Foundation (grant number CBET 1845354). This work was performed in part at the Georgia Tech Institute for Electronics and Nanotechnology, a member of the National Nanotechnology Coordinated Infrastructure (NNCI), which is supported by the National Science Foundation (grant ECCS-2025462). T.W. is grateful for the financial support provided by the China Scholarship Council. T.W. also thanks X. Li for her assistance on the drawing included in Fig. 4.

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X.X. and T.W. designed the research. T.W. performed the research. T.W. and X.X. analysed the data and wrote the paper.

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Correspondence to Xing Xie.

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Wang, T., Xie, X. Nanosecond bacteria inactivation realized by locally enhanced electric field treatment. Nat Water 1, 104–112 (2023).

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