NASA Testing University’s Coatings Research
Polymer coatings research conducted by the University of Idaho was recently launched and installed at the International Space Station, with hopes to minimize bacterial transmission. The university was one of five selected through NASA’s Student Payload Opportunity with Citizen Science (SPOCS) nationwide competition.
“Our experiment is designed to function under some of the toughest conditions: space,” said Hannah Johnson, a chemical engineering graduate and team lead on the project. “The results of this experiment will provide us with a set of unique data points on how bacteria-resistance works and what we can do, in space and on Earth, to better protect ourselves and stay healthy.”
“The goal of our project is to ultimately further space travel by reducing bacteria growth and disease on the International Space Station," added Adriana Bryant, a chemical engineering graduate. “In light of the COVID-19 pandemic, our experimentation could be potentially be utilized to prevent sickness here on Earth as well.”
The coatings were tested on an aluminum alloy used in high-contact areas throughout the ISS, such as handrails and door handles, to test how microgravity affects the efficacy of the polymers known to resist bacteria adhesion on Earth.
The #VandalsVoyage team is super busy in the lab today! They tell me they're still prepping the payload and eagerly awaiting the rest of their team of engineers to arrive tomorrow. Check out this super cool timelapse they shared from working on the project!??@kxly4news pic.twitter.com/KN8vUQvsaE— Esther Bower (@estherbower_tv) December 18, 2021
The U of I students submitted a proposal for SPOCS funding in October 2020 as part of their research conducted in fall 2020 as a senior capstone project assigned by Associate Professor Matthew Bernards.
Bernards, the Director of the NASA Idaho Space Grant Consortium, said chemical engineering capstone projects typically focus on industry and research needs or opportunities like national or international competitions. He also said that NASA’s call paired well with research the chemical engineering department has done over the last 14 years into polymers for biomedical applications, such as reducing bacterial adhesion during medical procedures.
The team presented their research that December to NASA representatives, mission managers with Nanoracks and space education company DreamUp after being selected as a finalist. It was announced they were chosen for funding on Dec. 14, 2020.
As part of the NASA funding, the team was expected to involve K-12 students in their research. According to U of I, the two polymers selected by trail to go to the ISS were led by the students with over two hundred third- through fifth-grade students at J. Russell Elementary School in Moscow, Idaho.
Researchers refined a non-toxic gel solution containing the bacteria-resistant polymers in petri dishes, and then asked the elementary students to get creative when collecting bacteria. Some of the samples came from sinks, floors, windows, lunch tables, keyboards or hand sanitizer bottles.
“Some of them probably spit in the petri dishes," Johnson said. "They had all sorts of ideas on how to get the bacteria in there.”
Then, the students used a nutrient broth to grow the bacteria in the petri dishes over the next 30 days. After monitoring daily changes, the students reported the two polymers they believed were the best candidates, and the research team analyzed their data to verify those results.
“These students gave us 91 different data points to get a conclusion from,” said SPOCS Chief Citizen Science Officer Kael Stelck. “Our team would have had to do an incredible amount of work, especially with a project of that nature. It was really beneficial to have these young scientists run it.”
The engineering students also had to design a housing to prevent bacteria from growing before it reaches spaces. Bernards said that the team was limited to a 10-by-10-by-15-centimeter container that could weigh no more than 1.5 kilograms, otherwise less than approximately 3.4 pounds.
NASA also limited the amount of electricity, noise and vibrations allowed for the chemistry to work, with the project needing as little involvement as possible from the astronauts aboard the ISS.
To achieve this, the container holds an upper dry space for electronic storage and a lower wet space for bacteria growth and a set of motorized devices to introduce bacteria. When plugged in, the bacteria encapsulated in a small spring-loaded plunger are introduced into the wet chamber to initiate growth
According to U of I, the device also contains control plates with no polymer coating.
The research team traveled to Kennedy Space Center to watch the launch of the SpaceX’s CRS-24 mission on Dec. 21, 2021. With roughly 56 hours to launch, the researchers learned that the research container had sprung a leak during pre-launch testing.
“At that moment, I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, did we just waste a year of our lives planning this project?’” Johnson said. “That was probably one of the most stressful times of our lives, but it was a good challenge because ... my teammates and I were able to overcome that and work really well under pressure and listen to each other and work as a team. It was definitely not fun, but it was very rewarding.”
With a tight deadline, the team had about a day to fix the containment seal issue. Weather also threatened to stall the launch of SpaceX. In the end, the U of I researchers were able to repair the device and the weather cleared, sending the polymer coatings to space.
The research was installed onboard the ISS by astronaut Kayla Barron and will remain undisturbed for 30 days before being returned to the university for final evaluations and report, including microscopy assessment to determine which polymer best resisted bacteria.
“[It] had a University of Idaho sticker on it, and my sister is actually a University of Idaho grad, Stephanie,” Barron said. “So I had kind of this, you know, ‘Go Vandals!’ thought in my head as I was putting it in. It was pretty cool to see.”
According to reports, the university filed a patent on the chemistry the students created, with Bernards adding that if the experiment is successful, “that just helps the route towards commercialization.”