Bacteria grow everywhere, including inside the International Space Station. That is why ESA has selected the Luxembourg Institute of Science and Technology (LIST) to develop antimicrobial surface treatments for the interior of spacecraft.
The Luxembourg institute launched its 18-month research project dubbed “ESA NBactspace”, on 4 March 2019, with a view to ensuring the health and safety of astronauts during future missions.
Bacterial pathogens are becoming resistant to antibiotics, while standard surface coatings designed to counteract growth rely on heavy metal particles, such as silver and copper – metals that can form a toxicity risk in the closed environment of a spacecraft. As we look to explore farther into our Solar System, it is important for mission designers to keep astronauts safe from microbial, algal and parasitic contamination as well as from nanoparticle toxicity.
LIST has been tasked with developing heavy-metal free antimicrobial coatings, that provide the same efficiency in space while using non-toxic biologically sourced materials, such molecules extracted from plants or lignin-based materials, or antimicrobial peptides found in bacteria.
The goal is to have no particles released into the spacecraft, or release a very low concentration of non-toxic biodegradable or biocompatible particles.
All-in-one antimicrobial surface
Two common ways of avoiding pathogens binding to surfaces are through materials that destroy these pathogens on contact, or developing surfaces that diffuse activity along their exterior. LIST aims to build a new, efficient combination of both these mechanisms, using biologically-sourced or synthetic materials that are biologically compatible.
“The application study follows from research conducted on the International Space Station such as the MATISS series of experiments that are testing common coatings,” says ESA’s Malgorzata Holynska, materials and processes engineer, “the findings will greatly contribute to better knowledge and definition of standards to follow in confined environments such as spacecraft, but also for applications on Earth.”
The applied research could have important socio-economic impacts, besides developing a sustainable and viable alternative to heavy metal-based surface coatings. It is envisaged that the technology could be transfered to other environments, such as e.g. the hospital setting, and medical implants or devices.