Plasma technology for space travel finds wider application

Plasma dispensers can help tackle the problem of super-strains of bacteria that can survive the strongest antibiotics

Plasma technology developed with European Space Agency funding and drawing on long-running research aboard the International Space Station is opening up a new way to keep people safe from infections.

Using plasma superheated, electrically charged gas, Gregor Morfill, director at the Max Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics, is developing ways to kill bacteria and viruses that can cause infections in hospitals and in food production.

The research began on the International Space Station (ISS), where his physics experiments have been running since 2001. The first was “Plasmakristall Experiment Nefedov” in co-operation with Russian partners. Later, the PK-3 Plus experiment flew in 2006 as part of ESA’s Astrolab mission.

“It’s the longest-running space experiment in the history of human spaceflight,” notes Dr Morfill. More than two dozen astronauts and cosmonauts have operated the equipment aboard the ISS.

The work in space led to the realisation that plasma might have very practical terrestrial applications and Dr Morfill turned to ESA's Technology Transfer Programme to make it a reality.

Plasma dispensers can help tackle the problem of super-strains of bacteria that can survive the strongest antibiotics in medicine’s arsenal.

With help from ESA, Dr Morfill’s team is now focusing on developing a system for hospitals, but cold plasma technology might one day also make it into homes. Plasma could be used to disinfect toothbrushes and razors instead of UV light, which sanitises only the surfaces it shines on. Plasma-charged gas would clean in hidden cracks and crevices, too.

At the other end of the spectrum, he says that plasma could be used as a planetary protection system to clean satellites and planetary probes so they don’t carry terrestrial bacteria to distant planets.

Dr Morfill is designing a system that makes use of plasma’s innate antibacterial properties to make disinfection easy and quick.

“It has many practical applications, from hand hygiene to food hygiene, disinfection of medical instruments, personal hygiene, even dentistry – this could be used in many, many fields.”

Dr Morfill adds that the research on the ISS and support from ESA has played an important role in turning physics experiments into life-saving technology here on Earth, both directly through ESA funding of a technology demonstrator project and through classic “trickle down” of the specific technology transfer.

“ESA has been tremendously helpful: we are 90% funded by ESA,” said Dr Morfill. “Funding for doing experimental work in the laboratory and in space has made it possible to spin off and start other research.”

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