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Research Looks to Coatings for Spacecraft Biofilm

Thursday, July 15, 2021

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A team of researchers from Montana State University’s Norm Asbjornson College of Engineering have recently been observing how specialized material coatings and other strategies can prevent microbial buildup in spacecraft water systems.

The prevention task arises as NASA’s goal of establishing a sustained human presence on Mars by the 2030s slowly approaches. However, as if landing a spacecraft on the distant planet without harming the crew, producing food and breathable air amid an inhospitable environment wasn’t enough, the two-and-a-half-year journey faces an additional threat commonly observed here on Earth: microbes.

While the crew will also be transporting all necessary water they’ll need for the journey, that water is slated to be continuously recycled through pipes, tanks and filters. Over time however, MSU researcher Madelyn Mettler points out that the water’s infrastructure will inevitably become slimy.

Having studied microbes sampled from the International Space Station for the last year, Mettler further reports that the slime is more than just a gross material—it can cause major issues such as microbial gunk. After its 15 years in orbit, the interior of the Russian space station Mir failed after becoming clogged with the same material.

Montana State University

A team of researchers from Montana State University’s Norm Asbjornson College of Engineering have recently been observing how specialized material coatings and other strategies can prevent microbial buildup in spacecraft water systems.

“It can really wreak havoc on the equipment,” said Mettler, a doctoral student in the Department of Chemical and Biological Engineering in MSU's Norm Asbjornson College of Engineering.

Upon making these observations, Mettler and a team of MSU scientists partnered with NASA to explore specialized material coatings and other strategies for preventing the microbial buildup in spacecraft, with a focus on two specific types of microbes: bacteria and yeast. When grown together, the materials form that aforementioned slim material, also known as a biofilm.

By growing the biofilm in the lab on wafers coated with various materials designed to deter the microbes, Mettler and her team measured how effective the coatings were. In their preliminary findings, the team discovered that coatings that had a sharp, microscopic spike-like profile that could pierce the cell walls of the microbes worked most successfully.

“We were surprised at how well the coatings worked at first,” Mettler said. Unfortunately, after further testing, the team discovered that a biofilm did eventually form on the coatings. The researchers attribute this growth to the dead microbes on top of the coated surface, creating a protective layer where the biofilm can grow again.

Traditionally on Earth, biofilms can be mitigated through the use of chemicals (which are much harder to kill than individual bacteria) but, because the water is recycled on the spacecraft, the chemicals only present additional issues. The same can be said for attempting to clean out the valves and pipes within a confined space as well.

“I think it could require using a combination of just about every control strategy we know of,” said project leader Brent Peyton, professor in the chemical and biological engineering department, referring to coatings, chemicals for water treatment that can be generated on demand, nutrient restriction in the water, in addition to the use of ultraviolet light and high-frequency sound waves to inhibit the biofilm.

“But we're hopeful there are solutions,” he added. MSU researchers have already been reported to have begun collaborating with NASA scientists on some of those strategies.

Mettler presented the team’s preliminary findings from the study at the CBE's Montana Biofilm Meeting on July 13-15. Mettler added in her interview that she looks forward to the virtual Montana Biofilm Meeting later this year, which brings together dozens of industry representatives, researchers and government officials to exchange the latest findings in biofilm science.

Previously, in 2019 when Mettler was an undergraduate prior to earning her bachelor's in biological engineering, NASA scientists stayed at MSU after the meeting for a special workshop on spacecraft biofilms.

“It's amazing how much we're able to learn from each other, and there are so many collaborations that form from those exchanges,” she said. This year, she expects lively and productive conversation among the scientists from MSU and NASA.

Space Coatings

According to an article published earlier this year by the Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, testing completed on the NASA Perseverance's protective coating at the WPAF Research Lab aided the rover’s touchdown success on its mission to Mars back in February.

Described as being roughly the size of a mid-sized car, NASA’s Perseverance Rover is decked out in lasers, sensors, cameras and other highly specialized electronic equipment. For this reason, the rover required a collection of protective coatings to preserve its sophisticated equipment and ensure the success of the mission.

Upon reviewing its options in the coatings industry, as in previous space projects, NASA landed on DuPont’s technology, which for Perseverance specifically, included Kapton polyimide films and Pyralux copper-clad flexible circuit laminate materials, to power and protect the rover over the course of its journey.

“Our Kapton HN polyimide film was on the Apollo 11 mission over 50 years ago, recently celebrated 20 years of service on the International Space Station and is part of the current Mars Perseverance Rover project,” said Tim Scott, E&I Business Development Leader for the Aerospace & Defense market segment, on DuPont and NASA’s history.

In previous explorations to Mars, NASA also reportedly used DuPont’s Pyralux flexible circuits and pressure-sensitive tape made from Kapton polyimide film to control vibration on twin rovers Spirit and Opportunity. The materials offered a durable, lightweight environmental resistance for the temperatures on Mars, that ranged from minus 120 degrees Centigrade (minus 184 degrees Fahrenheit) to 22 C (72 F).

Due to the success rate of the Pyralux and Kapton products, Scott expects the DuPont coatings will continue to play a key role in the development of advanced antennas suitable for smallsat applications. Moving forward, he adds that a new product showing promise for space exploration is the company’s white-colored Kapton polyimide film for use on deployable radiator panels or as the outer surface of a multi-layer insulation blanket for passive thermal control.

The product was recently tested by Airbus Defense and Space in Europe and the positive findings were presented during a conference of the European Space Agency late last year.

For the test on Perseverance’s protective coating, NASA provided the necessary data on particle sizes for the test debris. “They sent us a request to test everything from very small dust-sized particles up to gravel. It was about a three order-of-magnitude size range,” said Hartshorne, further explaining that tests weren’t conducted by mixing all the different sizes of debris, but that the coating was tested by blasting each size of test sample individually. The reason for the multiple tests is that “each size takes a different ballistic arc based on its mass and drag.”

The erosion lab also used a gravelometer to test larger sizes of debris, where NASA actually sent the lab their simulated Mars rocks for testing. Hartshorne’s team assisted the JPL team with a multi-day testing event, including complete test set-up, testing and insights on possible failures.

The researchers noted that without the testing at AFRL’s Materials and Manufacturing erosion lab, landing Perseverance safely would not have been so assured.

Since its landing, Perseverance has been deploying a smaller helicopter named Ingenuity. It is the first heavier-than-air, powered, controllable aircraft to fly on another planet. To commemorate this first, NASA tucked a one-inch square piece of unbleached muslin inside the tiny craft. That swatch of fabric was from the Wright Flyer, the first heavier-than-air, powered, controllable aircraft to fly on Earth.


Tagged categories: Aerospace; Coating chemistry; Coating Materials; Coating Materials; Coatings Technology; Colleges and Universities; NA; NASA; North America; Protective Coatings; Quality Control; Research and development; Water/Wastewater

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