It's big in Japan. People there spray it on sushi to kill bacteria and fill their swimming pools with it, eliminating the need for harsh chlorine. Doctors use it to sterilize equipment and treat foot fungus and bedsores. It's the secret weapon in Sanyo Electric Corp.'s "soap-less" washing machine.
Now Sanyo is bent on cleaning up Japan's taxis with a tiny air purifier that fits into a car's cup holder. The device uses electrolyzed water to shield passengers from an unwelcome byproduct of Japan's binge-drinking business culture: vomit.
"There was some concern about the spreading of viruses and bacteria via the taxi, not to mention the . . . stinky smells," Sanyo spokesman Aaron Fowles said.
Sanyo's taxi air washer isn't yet available in the U.S.; commuters will have to hold their noses for now. But the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the Food and Drug Administration and the Environmental Protection Agency have approved electrolyzed water for a variety of uses.
PuriCore of Malvern, Pa., and Oculus Innovative Sciences of Petaluma, Calif., have developed treatments for chronic wounds. Albuquerque, N.M.-based MIOX Corp. sells municipal water-purifying systems. EAU Technologies Inc. of Kennesaw, Ga., caters to both ends of a dairy cow, with alkaline water to aid the animal's digestion and acid water to clean up its manure.
Integrated Environmental Technologies Inc. of Little River, S.C., is working with oil companies to keep wells free of bacteria and with high schools to sanitize sweaty wrestling mats and grungy football equipment that spread skin infections.
Electrolyzer Corp. of Woburn, Mass., is going after the hospitality market. The Sheraton Delfina purchased one of its machines. So has the Hyatt Regency Chicago and the Trump International Beach Resort near Miami.
Patrick Lucci, Electrolyzer's vice president of marketing, likes to bombard prospects with scientific studies, then give 'em the old razzle-dazzle. He'll swig the processed salt water before he mops the floor with it.
"Try that with bleach," he said.
The unit in Santa Monica looks a little like an oversized water heater, with two tanks side by side -- one for making the hypochlorous acid sanitizer, the other for the sodium hydroxide cleanser.
Rebecca Jimenez, director of housekeeping, heard grumbling from the cleaning staff when the hotel brought the machine in last fall. Housekeepers doubted that the flat, virtually odorless liquids were really doing the job. Some poured the guest shampoos into their bottles to work up a lather.
"If it doesn't suds up, it doesn't work," Jimenez said. "That's the mentality."
Still, she said, most have come around and are enjoying working without fumes and peeling skin.
Minnesota food scientist Joellen Feirtag said she was similarly skeptical. So she installed an electrolysis unit in her laboratory and began researching the technology. She found that the acid water killed E. coli, salmonella, listeria and other nasty pathogens. Yet it was gentle enough to soothe her children's sunburns and acne.
She's now encouraging food processors to take a look at electrolyzed water to help combat the disease outbreaks that have roiled the industry. Most are dubious.
"This sounds too good to be true, which is really the biggest problem," said Feirtag, an associate professor at the University of Minnesota. "But it's only a matter of time before this becomes mainstream."