What is UVC?

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Ultraviolet germicidal irradiation

Ultraviolet germicidal irradiation (UVGI) is a disinfection method that uses short-wavelength ultraviolet (ultraviolet C or UV-C) light to kill or inactivate microorganisms by destroying nucleic acids and disrupting their DNA, leaving them unable to perform vital cellular functions. UVGI is used in a variety of applications, such as food, air, and water purification.

UV-C light is weak at the Earth's surface since the ozone layer of the atmosphere blocks it. UVGI devices can produce strong enough UV-C light in circulating air or water systems to make them inhospitable environments to microorganisms such as bacteriavirusesmolds, and other pathogens. UVGI can be coupled with a filtration system to sanitize air and water.

The application of UVGI to disinfection has been an accepted practice since the mid-20th century. It has been used primarily in medical sanitation and sterile work facilities. Increasingly, it has been employed to sterilize drinking and wastewater since the holding facilities are enclosed and can be circulated to ensure a higher exposure to the UV. In recent years, UVGI has found renewed application in air purifiers.



In 1878, Arthur Downes and Thomas P. Blunt published a paper describing the sterilization of bacteria exposed to short-wavelength light.[3] UV has been a known mutagen at the cellular level for over 100 years. The 1903 Nobel Prize for Medicine was awarded to Niels Finsen for his use of UV against lupus vulgaristuberculosis of the skin.

Using UV light for disinfection of drinking water dates back to 1910 in Marseille, France. The prototype plant was shut down after a short time due to poor reliability. In 1955, UV water treatment systems were applied in Austria and Switzerland; by 1985 about 1,500 plants were employed in Europe. In 1998 it was discovered that protozoa such as cryptosporidium and giardia were more vulnerable to UV light than previously thought; this opened the way to wide-scale use of UV water treatment in North America. By 2001, over 6,000 UV water treatment plants were operating in Europe.

Over time, UV costs have declined as researchers develop and use new UV methods to disinfect water and wastewater. Currently[when?], several countries[which?] have developed regulations that allow systems to disinfect their drinking water supplies with UV light.[citation needed] The US EPA has published a document providing guidance for the implementation of ultraviolet disinfection for drinking water, the Ultraviolet Disinfection Guidance Manual for the Final Long Term 2 Enhanced Surface Water Treatment Rule.

Method of operation


Low-pressure & medium-pressure mercury-vapor lamp compared to E.coli germicidal effectiveness curve.

UV light is electromagnetic radiation with wavelengths shorter than visible light but longer than X-rays. UV is categorised into several wavelength ranges, with short-wavelength UV (UV-C) considered "germicidal UV". Wavelengths between about 200 nm and 300 nm are strongly absorbed by nucleic acids. The absorbed energy can result in defects including pyrimidine dimers. These dimers can prevent replication or can prevent the expression of necessary proteins, resulting in the death or inactivation of the organism.

  • Mercury-based lamps operating at low vapor pressure emit UV light at the 253.7 nm line.
  • Ultraviolet light-emitting diode(UV-C LED) lamps emit UV light at selectable wavelengths between 255 and 280 nm.
  • Pulsed-xenon lamps emit UV light across the entire UV spectrum with a peak emission near 230 nm.


UVC LED emitting 265 nm compared to E.coli germicidal effectiveness curve. [11]

This process is similar to the effect of longer wavelengths (UV-B) producing sunburn in humans. Microorganisms have less protection against UV and cannot survive prolonged exposure to it.

A UVGI system is designed to expose environments such as water tanks, sealed rooms and forced air systems to germicidal UV. Exposure comes from germicidal lamps that emit germicidal UV at the correct wavelength, thus irradiating the environment. The forced flow of air or water through this environment ensures exposure.


The effectiveness of germicidal UV depends on the length of time a microorganism is exposed to UV, the intensity and wavelength of the UV radiation, the presence of particles that can protect the microorganisms from UV, and a microorganism's ability to withstand UV during its exposure.

In many systems, redundancy in exposing microorganisms to UV is achieved by circulating the air or water repeatedly. This ensures multiple passes so that the UV is effective against the highest number of microorganisms and will irradiate resistant microorganisms more than once to break them down.

"Sterilization" is often misquoted as being achievable. While it is theoretically possible in a controlled environment, it is very difficult to prove and the term "disinfection" is generally used by companies offering this service as to avoid legal reprimand. Specialist companies will often advertise a certain log reduction, e.g., 6-log reduction or 99.9999% effective, instead of sterilization. This takes into consideration a phenomenon known as light and dark repair (photoreactivation and base excision repair, respectively), in which a cell can repair DNA that has been damaged by UV light.

The effectiveness of this form of disinfection depends on line-of-sight exposure of the microorganisms to the UV light. Environments where design creates obstacles that block the UV light are not as effective. In such an environment, the effectiveness is then reliant on the placement of the UVGI system so that line of sight is optimum for disinfection.

Dust and films coating the bulb lower UV output. Therefore, bulbs require periodic cleaning and replacement to ensure effectiveness. The lifetime of germicidal UV bulbs varies depending on design. Also, the material that the bulb is made of can absorb some of the germicidal rays.

Lamp cooling under airflow can also lower UV output; thus, care should be taken to shield lamps from direct airflow, or to add additional lamps to compensate for the cooling effect.

Increases in effectiveness and UV intensity can be achieved by using reflection. Aluminum has the highest reflectivity rate versus other metals and is recommended when using UV.

One method for gauging UV effectiveness in water disinfection applications is to compute UV dose. The U.S. EPA publishes UV dosage guidelines for water treatment applications. UV dose cannot be measured directly but can be inferred based on the known or estimated inputs to the process:

  • Flow rate (contact time)
  • Transmittance (light reaching the target)
  • Turbidity (cloudiness)
  • Lamp age or foulingor outages (reduction in UV intensity)

In air and surface disinfection applications the UV effectiveness is estimated by calculating the UV dose which will be delivered to the microbial population. The UV dose is calculated as follows:

UV dose μWs/cm2 = UV intensity μW/cm2 × exposure time (seconds)

The UV intensity is specified for each lamp at a distance of 1 meter. UV intensity is inversely proportional to the square of the distance so it decreases at longer distances. Alternatively, it rapidly increases at distances shorter than 1m. In the above formula, the UV intensity must always be adjusted for distance unless the UV dose is calculated at exactly 1 m (3.3 ft) from the lamp. Also, to ensure effectiveness, the UV dose must be calculated at the end of lamp life (EOL is specified in number of hours when the lamp is expected to reach 80% of its initial UV output) and at the furthest distance from the lamp on the periphery of the target area. Some shatter-proof lamps are coated with a fluorated ethylene polymer to contain glass shards and mercury in case of breakage; this coating reduces UV output by as much as 20%.

To accurately predict what UV dose will be delivered to the target, the UV intensity, adjusted for distance, coating, and end of lamp life, will be multiplied by the exposure time. In static applications the exposure time can be as long as needed for an effective UV dose to be reached. In case of rapidly moving air, in AC air ducts, for example, the exposure time is short, so the UV intensity must be increased by introducing multiple UV lamps or even banks of lamps. Also, the UV installation must be located in a long straight duct section with the lamps perpendicular to the airflow to maximize the exposure time.

These calculations actually predict the UV fluence and it is assumed that the UV fluence will be equal to the UV dose. The UV dose is the amount of germicidal UV energy absorbed by a microbial population over a period of time. If the microorganisms are planktonic (free floating) the UV fluence will be equal the UV dose. However, if the microorganisms are protected by mechanical particles, such as dust and dirt, or have formed biofilm a much higher UV fluence will be needed for an effective UV dose to be introduced to the microbial population.

Inactivation of microorganisms

The degree of inactivation by ultraviolet radiation is directly related to the UV dose applied to the water. The dosage, a product of UV light intensity and exposure time, is usually measured in microjoules per square centimeter, or equivalently as microwatt seconds per square centimeter (μW·s/cm2). Dosages for a 90% kill of most bacteria and viruses range from 2,000 to 8,000 μW·s/cm2. Larger parasites such as cryptosporidium require a lower dose for inactivation. As a result, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has accepted UV disinfection as a method for drinking water plants to obtain cryptosporidium, giardia or virus inactivation credits. For example, for a 90% reduction of cryptosporidium, a minimum dose of 2,500 μW·s/cm2 is required based on the U.S. EPA UV Guidance Manual published in 2006.



See also: Ultraviolet § Artificial sources



A 9 W germicidal lamp in a compact fluorescent lamp form factor

Main article: Germicidal lamp

Germicidal UV for disinfection is most typically generated by a mercury-vapor lamp. Low-pressure mercury vapor has a strong emission line at 254 nm, which is within the range of wavelengths that demonstrate strong disinfection effect. The optimal wavelengths for disinfection are close to 260 nm.

Mercury vapor lamps may be categorized as either low-pressure (including amalgam) or medium-pressure lamps. Low-pressure UV lamps offer high efficiencies (approx. 35% UV-C) but lower power, typically 1 W/cm power density (power per unit of arc length). Amalgam UV lamps utilize an amalgam to control mercury pressure to allow operation at a somewhat higher temperature and power density. They operate at higher temperatures and have a lifetime of up to 16,000 hours. Their efficiency is slightly lower than that of traditional low-pressure lamps (approx. 33% UV-C output), and power density is approximately 2–3 W/cm. Medium-pressure UV lamps operate at much higher temperatures, up to about 800 degrees Celsius, and have a polychromatic output spectrum and a high radiation output but lower UV-C efficiency of 10% or less. Typical power density is 30 W/cm3 or greater.

Depending on the quartz glass used for the lamp body, low-pressure and amalgam UV emit radiation at 254 nm and also at 185 nm, which has chemical effects. UV radiation at 185 nm is used to generate ozone.

The UV lamps for water treatment consist of specialized low-pressure mercury-vapor lamps that produce ultraviolet radiation at 254 nm, or medium-pressure UV lamps that produce a polychromatic output from 200 nm to visible and infrared energy. The UV lamp never contacts the water; it is either housed in a quartz glass sleeve inside the water chamber or mounted externally to the water, which flows through the transparent UV tube. Water passing through the flow chamber is exposed to UV rays, which are absorbed by suspended solids, such as microorganisms and dirt, in the stream.

Light emitting diodes (LEDs)


Compact and versatile options with UV-C LEDs

Recent developments in LED technology have led to commercially available UV-C LEDs. UV-C LEDs use semiconductors to emit light between 255 nm and 280 nm. The wavelength emission is tuneable by adjusting the material of the semiconductor. As of 2019, the electrical-to-UV-C conversion efficiency of LEDs was lower than that of mercury lamps. The reduced size of LEDs opens up options for small reactor systems allowing for point-of-use applications and integration into medical devices. Low power consumption of semiconductors introduce UV disinfection systems that utilized small solar cells in remote or Third World applications.

UV-C LEDs don't necessarily last longer than traditional germicidal lamps in terms of hours used, instead having more-variable engineering characteristics and better tolerance for short-term operation. A UV-C LED can achieve a longer installed time than a traditional germicidal lamp in intermittent use. Likewise, LED degradation increases with heat, while filament and HID lamp output wavelength is dependent on temperature, so engineers can design LEDs of a particular size and cost to have a higher output and faster degradation or a lower output and slower decline over time.

Water treatment systems

Sizing of a UV system is affected by three variables: flow rate, lamp power, and UV transmittance in the water. Manufacturers typically developed sophisticated computational fluid dynamics (CFD) models validated with bioassay testing. This involves testing the UV reactor's disinfection performance with either MS2 or T1 bacteriophages at various flow rates, UV transmittance, and power levels in order to develop a regression model for system sizing. For example, this is a requirement for all drinking water systems in the United States per the EPA UV Guidance Manual.

The flow profile is produced from the chamber geometry, flow rate, and particular turbulence model selected. The radiation profile is developed from inputs such as water quality, lamp type (power, germicidal efficiency, spectral output, arc length), and the transmittance and dimension of the quartz sleeve. Proprietary CFD software simulates both the flow and radiation profiles. Once the 3D model of the chamber is built, it is populated with a grid or mesh that comprises thousands of small cubes.

Points of interest—such as at a bend, on the quartz sleeve surface, or around the wiper mechanism—use a higher resolution mesh, whilst other areas within the reactor use a coarse mesh. Once the mesh is produced, hundreds of thousands of virtual particles are "fired" through the chamber. Each particle has several variables of interest associated with it, and the particles are "harvested" after the reactor. Discrete phase modeling produces delivered dose, head loss, and other chamber-specific parameters.

When the modeling phase is complete, selected systems are validated using a professional third party to provide oversight and to determine how closely the model is able to predict the reality of system performance. System validation uses non-pathogenic surrogates such as MS 2 phage or Bacillus subtilis to determine the Reduction Equivalent Dose (RED) ability of the reactors. Most systems are validated to deliver 40 mJ/cm2 within an envelope of flow and transmittance.

To validate effectiveness in drinking-water systems, the method described in the EPA UV Guidance Manual is typically used by the U.S., whilst Europe has adopted Germany's DVGW 294 standard. For wastewater systems, the NWRI/AwwaRF Ultraviolet Disinfection Guidelines for Drinking Water and Water Reuse protocols are typically used, especially in wastewater reuse applications.