The dentist's drill could soon be a thing of the past. Plasma jets could be just as effective at cleaning out decayed teeth - and a damn sight less painful.
Firing low temperature plasma beams at dentin – the fibrous tooth structure underneath the enamel coating - was found to cut the amount of dental bacteria by up to 10,000 times.
Scientists at the Leibniz-Institute of Surface Modifications and dentists from Saarland University zapped common oral pathogens including Streptococcus mutans and Lactobacillus casei with a plasma jet for 6, 12 or 18 seconds.
The longer the dentin was exposed to the plasma, the more bacteria were eliminated.
Dr Stefan Rupf from Saarland University said that the recent development of cold plasmas of around 40 degrees Celsius showed great promise for use in dentistry.
"The low temperature means they can kill the microbes while preserving the tooth. The dental pulp at the centre of the tooth, underneath the dentin, is linked to the blood supply and nerves and heat damage to it must be avoided at all costs."
Dr Rupf said he was sure that using plasma technology to disinfect tooth cavities would be welcomed by patients as well as dentists.
"Drilling is a very uncomfortable and sometimes painful experience," he said. "Cold plasma, in contrast, is a completely contact-free method that is highly effective. Presently, there is huge progress being made in the field of plasma medicine, and a clinical treatment for dental cavities can be expected within three to five years."