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View in incubator with infant in clinic room

UVC disinfection for incubators

Every year, more than 63,000 children are born prematurely in Germany. Worldwide, the issue even affects almost 10 percent of all births. In the first weeks of life, premature babies are cared for in so-called incubators.

These should be disinfected continuously, which is complicated due to the chemical disinfectants usually used. UVC radiation offers itself here as a technological alternative.

The disinfection of incubators is of particular importance, as there is an increased risk of infection by environmental germs, especially in very small premature infants, due to the immaturity of their organ systems and the still lacking immune defense. The warm and humid environment in the incubators favors the multiplication of pathogens. To break this chain of infection, incubators are regularly replaced, cleaned and chemically disinfected in routine clinical practice. However, since the disinfectants used cannot be applied in the immediate environment of the premature infants, this reprocessing must be done outside the patient's room by changing the incubator, usually at 14-day intervals. Chemical agents are therefore not suitable for ongoing disinfection of the interior.

In the BMBF-funded research project "NeoUVDes" a new approach to disinfection using UVC LED-generated radiation is now to be tested and transferred to an application. The advantage: The interior of incubators can be disinfected on a daily basis while the child is lying with the mother, for example during so-called Kangaroo Mother Care (KMC). Due to the available period of usually two hours, the time window for disinfection by means of UVC radiation is sufficiently long to achieve complete disinfection of the interior of the incubators. Within the framework of "NeoUVDes", a demonstrator is to be developed for this purpose. Technical challenges include the currently still high heat generation of the UVC LEDs, which must be cleverly dissipated by a cooling system, and the arrangement of the LEDs so that any shaded areas can also be efficiently illuminated.

The disinfection device to be developed should be easy to handle and carry out disinfection as far as possible independently. It is simply placed in the incubator and activated. After the doors have been closed, irradiation begins and ends when the required irradiation dose has been reached. Sensors detect the position and radiation conditions in the incubator and adjust the power of the UVC LED lamps in such a way that an even dose distribution and thus disinfection is achieved on all surfaces. After use, the battery-powered device is recharged in its transport container and disinfected itself in the process.

The device is being tested in a clinical trial at the project partner's university hospital in Jena. For this purpose, either the demonstrator or an identical functionless device will be used at random in the incubators of the premature infants' ward. The team from the Institute of Infectious Medicine and Hospital Hygiene will then examine the germs on the incubator walls and compare their gene profile with the children's colonization germs in a complex data analysis. "In this way, we want to test whether UV disinfection during the KMC period contributes to a reduction of germs in the incubator and to a lower colonization of the premature babies with pathogens," says hospital hygienist Prof. Frank Kipp.

Another project focus is on integration into clinical routine. Work on "NeoUVDes" started in October 2021. In addition to Fraunhofer IOSB-AST and Jena University Hospital, SAVUNA GmbH (consortium leadership) and Micro-Hybrid Electronic GmbH are also involved in the "NeoUVDes" research project. The project is funded by the German Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF) with one million euros.

Picture: Michael Szabó/Universitätsklinikum Jena

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