OAK RIDGE, Tenn. – This is one cleaning that could pass anybody's white-glove test.
A high-tech dust rag developed by a research chemist at a nuclear weapons plant can pick up potentially deadly beryllium particles that are 20 times smaller than what can be seen with the naked eye.
Its inventor, Ron Simandl, says it could be used to mop up industrial accidents or wipe down semiconductor "clean rooms."
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And look out Swiffer dusters: The "Negligible-Residue Non-tacky Tack Cloth" could be bound for the consumer market, albeit with a catchier name.
Simandl, who is used to working in a secretive environment at the Y-12 nuclear weapons plant, isn't saying much about the ingredients in his special cloth-coating formula.
The patent-pending treatment, which could work on any rag, has been tested on cheesecloth for six months with great success, he said.
Metal, ceramic, plastic, fibers, radiological contaminants all have been picked up.
"There is a good, but not necessarily obvious, reason why they work," he said. "My cloths were thoroughly tested before I submitted the patent application."
Marilyn Giles, technology transfer director for Y-12's managing contractor, is shopping the treatment around.
"We will need a technical champion before we can find a business champion because it is kind of hard to comprehend that it can actually do what he says it can do," Giles said. "But it would not be a very expensive process to put in place for a company who already does this."
The Institute of Environmental Sciences and Technology, an industry group that is involved in setting clean room standards, sounded intrigued.
"The product is interesting, but there are a number of questions ... that many professionals would have," institute spokeswoman Heather Dvorak said in an e-mail.
Beryllium is a light but strong metal that is used in bicycle frames and golf clubs, X-ray machines and nuclear weapons. Exposure can lead to chronic respiratory problems and cancer.
The Y-12 plant, which has been making nuclear bomb parts since World War II, doesn't take beryllium lightly.
The government has paid out millions to compensate sick nuclear plant workers, including about 140 past and present Y-12 workers identified with beryllium sensitivity, an early stage of the illness.
Commercial cleaners and wipes failed to pick up all the beryllium and left a residue.
"I have been thinking about this for 30 years," Simandl said. "Other people have to, and it has just evaded us. It is just a real difficult problem. You are trying to clean up invisible stuff, but it's at levels that industrial hygiene people say is harmful."
The organic solvent-based cloth treatment that Simandl and partner Scott Hollenbeck came up with yields a dry coating that doesn't feel tacky to the touch "yet retains very high tackiness on the microscopic level" and leaves no trace.
"The physics of tackiness is very complex," Simandl said.
The dust rag may work like a dirt magnet, but "magnetism is not involved," he adds. "That is just allegory or poetic license."
Simandl also tried out the cloths at home. Using his simple instructions "Use dry, rub hard," Simandl dry-buffed the alloy wheels on his car.
"The stubborn brake and road dirt came right off and left the wheels bright and showroom-shiny," he said. "You could even polish your titanium golf clubs with them."