Margaret Frey, an assistant professor of fiber science and apparel design at Cornell University, says the napkin features sensitive nanofibers to quickly detect biohazards.
"It's very inexpensive, it wouldn't require that someone be highly trained to use it, and it could be activated for whatever you want to find," Frey said. "So if you're working in a meat-packing plant, for instance, you could swipe it across some hamburger and quickly and easily detect E. coli bacteria."
She reported on the research at the American Chemical Society's national meeting in San Francisco on 11 September.
Once fully developed, the absorbent wipe would contain nanofibers containing antibodies to numerous biohazards and chemicals.
Users would wipe the napkin across a surface. The nanofibers and would signal the presence of a pathogen or other hazard by changing color or through another effect when the antibodies attach to their targets.
Frey and her research partners developed nanofibers with platforms made of biotin, a part of the B vitamin complex, and the protein streptavidin, which can hold the antibodies.
The nanofibers are developed from a polymer compound made from corn. They suggest the nanofibers could be incorporated into conventional paper products to keep costs low.
Nanofibers have diameters near 100 nanometers. A nanometer is one-billionth of a meter, or about three times the diameter of an atom.
Frey is studying them as they provide extremely large surface areas for sensing and increased absorbency compared with conventional fibers.
"The fabric basically acts as a sponge that you can use to dip in a liquid or wipe across a surface," Frey said. "As you do that, antibodies in the fabric are going to selectively latch onto whatever pathogen that they match."Using the method the researchers developed she believes they should, in theory, be able to quickly activate the fabric to detect whatever hazard, whether it is bird flu, mad cow disease or anthrax.
Frey and her colleagues are still working on ways, such as a color change, for the fabric to signal that it has identified the contaminant.
"We're probably still a few years away from having this ready for the real world, but I really believe there is a place for this type of product that can be used by people with limited training to provide a fast indication of whether a biohazard is present," she said.