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Antimicrobial coating tested to protect spacecraft from bacteria spread

Authors:
Charlie Tran – Griffith Institute for Drug Discovery, Griffith University
Fardowso Ahmed Hussein – Sunnybank State High School
Duwon Kong – Sunnybank State High School

Researchers at Boeing Research & Technology – Australia and the University of Queensland (UQ) are testing a novel antimicrobial surface coating designed to fight the spread of bacteria and viruses on earth and in orbit.

As space travel is increasing, and with moon and mars missions on the horizon, scientists are investigating ways to ensure the health of the crew and to protect spacecrafts’ systems from bacteria. Microgravity acts a stressor on astronauts’ bodies that then weakens their immune system; in addition, microbes grow quicker, mutate faster, and have been shown to build greater resistance to antibiotics under the same conditions.

So how can the space industry address these issues and ultimately prevent interplanetary contamination from Earth-borne or another planet’s microbes? One solution to this issue lies in an innovative antimicrobial surface coating currently being developed by Boeing Research & Technology – Australia and UQ.

David Corporal is a research engineer at Boeing Research & Technology – Australia who assists in the testing of the antimicrobial surface coating. This technology destroys microorganisms shortly after contact and could be applied to high-touch spacecraft parts such as windows, armrests and seatbelts. David collaborated with renowned research leaders such as Professor Michael Monteiro from the Australian Institute for Bioengineering and Nanotechnology (AIBN), UQ and subject matter experts at the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) to make this project happen. These collaborations have assisted the Boeing and UQ teams in the development of this technology. Most recently, the coating was tested on the International Space Station (ISS).

“Having this technology tested on the ISS, and having played a significant role in the experiment, is a fantastic feeling. This project is a great example of where collaboration across disciplines can lead,” said David.

Boeing Research Engineer, David Corporal, displays experiment to test the antimicrobial surface coating on spacecraft.

A successful project can require several years of dedication, but David emphasises that if you are genuinely curious about your studies and work, then you should keep going. Growing up in Brisbane, David completed his engineering degree at UQ before being offered a position at Boeing Research & Technology – Australia. Initially, David found that working for such a renowned company was a completely new, challenging experience. However, with the continual support of his team, he was able to further develop his skillset with an eye towards project success.

“University teaches you the skills you need to be technically competent, however a lot more is needed for projects to work well. Project management, systems engineering, communication with stakeholders, and logistics are some things I’ve had to learn working as an engineer,” said David.

As David and the broader team continue to develop the antimicrobial surface coating, there are a range of economic, health and social benefits that could emerge from this project. Both aviation and aerospace companies would be able to implement the new technology for passenger and crew safety. The technology has already been tested aboard Boeing’s ecoDemonstrator (www.boeing.com/principles/environment/ecodemonstrator) as part of the company’s Confident Travel Initiative, with The University of Queensland investigating broader applications for the research.

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