Antimicrobial Coating Test Launched into Space


Global aerospace company Boeing recently launched a project to the International Space Station to test the effectiveness and durability of an antimicrobial coating in space. The experiment was sent on SpaceX’s 29th Commercial Resupply Services mission.

According to a press release from the ISS National Laboratory, human-associated microorganisms can spread disease and infection that pose a risk to crew health and spaceship integrity, even in the space environment.

To find a potential solution, Boeing partnered with researchers at the University of Queensland to develop a polymer coating that is designed to fight the spread of bacteria and viruses.

Building on a previous experiment onboard the space station to test the coating’s effectiveness, the new investigation will reportedly test it across several different surfaces and areas of the orbiting laboratory.

The team is specifically interested in testing the coating’s durability and performance against microbes deposited by touch and through the air, said David Corporal, a research engineer for Boeing.

“We are looking at that long-duration microbial protection in space, and you just really can’t simulate that kind of long-term microgravity and radiation levels in an environment on Earth,” Corporal said. “We had good results during our first flight, and now we’re going back with lessons learned to test this technology more broadly across the space station.

“This is to further hopes of eventually reducing the microbial burden on long-term space missions for crew and systems, as well helping reduce any contaminations of other worlds that may be visited in the long run.”

The lab explains that, for the experiment, several aluminum placards will be placed in four locations, including the galley, the toilet and the workout and hygiene areas. Each placard contains various materials representative of several spacecraft interior surfaces, including antimicrobial-coated and uncoated surface samples.

Afterwards, swabs will be used to collect microbes on these surface materials and then returned to researchers on Earth for testing. The research team will reportedly analyze microbial growth rates and surface cleanliness and review crew feedback.

The results could have far-reaching implications for future space missions, including those to the Moon and Mars, and life on future commercial space stations, the ISS National Laboratory says.

Still, the coating’s benefits are not limited to space, said Scott Copeland, director for ISS research integration at Boeing.

“By stress testing this technology against the microbial conditions in space, we can also explore its potential use in high-traffic areas that serve as disease vectors on Earth, like movie theaters or other enclosed spaces,” he said.

SpaceX CRS-29 launched on Nov. 9, including multiple ISS National Lab-sponsored payloads. 

Other ISS Antimicrobial Coating Research

Last year, in June, the European Space Agency announced that it was studying materials for self-cleaning antimicrobial coatings to protect both astronauts and materials on the ISS, in collaboration with the Istituto Italiano di Tecnologia.

The PATINA project, or “Optimization of Photo-catalytic Antibacterial coatings,” was proposed through the ESA’s Open Space Innovation Platform, which seeks novel ideas for space research. According to the release, the project also covers other antimicrobial surface treatments, including super-hydrophobic materials that repel all moisture, electro-static reaction and biocide-releasing materials.

A microbial survey of surfaces on the ISS reportedly found dozens of different bacteria and fungi species, including pathogens such as Staphylococcus aureus which can cause skin and respiratory infections as well as food poisoning. Biofilms from theses microbial populations can also tarnish and eat away at metla, glass, plastic and rubber on the spacecraft.

The ISS’s predecessor, the Mir space station, reportedly experienced this issue when microbial colonies were observed growing on spacesuits, cable insulation and the seals of windows.

To combat this, the IIT team started working with titanium oxide, or titania, which is used in self-cleaning glass or hygienic surfaces on Earth. When exposed to ultraviolet light, the material breaks down water vapor in the air into “free oxygen radicals” that eat bacterial membranes.

According to the ESA, the coating was successfully tested on glass, silicon wafer, aluminum foil and clean-room grade paper tissue. This testing was completed through a variety of methods, including physical vapor deposition and atomic layer deposition.


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