Self-cleaning grout for hospital operating theatres and even for domestic bathrooms may soon become a reality as Manchester scientists develop materials for the future.
Researchers at the University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology are developing a new-style grout which they hope will cut down on contamination and cleaning costs.
According to Umist mechanical engineer Lin Li, the grout between ceramic tiles is a weak point where bacteria can breed. In a hospital or food processing context, the grout - through which water may soak - has to be regularly decontaminated. This can involve removing the tiles every few years.
But now scientists at the university are using laser technology to seal the grouting material to prevent water from penetrating the surface.
"We put the grout in and then use the laser to melt it," explained Dr Li. "The grout binds to the tile so you get a continuous water-impermeable surface."
Dr Li is now working on a new-style anti-bacterial grout which would include a germ-killing agent. "Not only would the grout then be water-impermeable," he said. "But it would also actively kill germs on the surface. We would have essentially self-cleaning grout."
Dr Li, who has been working with Andy Gale and Roger Edwards, says it might not be too long before the anti-bacterial grout, being developed with a grant from the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, and the laser-sealing technology are available on the high street for people doing up their bathrooms or kitchens.
"You could go to perhaps B&Q and buy the grout and then people could come in and seal it for you in your house," he said.