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Center Innovation Fund: JSC CIF

Surface Decontamination and Biofilm Eradication using Focused Microwave Energy

Completed Technology Project

Project Introduction

Future long duration missions to Mars and beyond will bring new challenges to the health and well-being of astronauts. Potential medical issues due to infection and contamination can become more serious and likely to occur the longer crewmembers are away from Earth. Decontamination is a concern due to increased virulence of microbes and up mass launch restrictions (i.e., disinfectants/reagents, clean clothes, hardware components). Bacteria can accumulate on surfaces and in exercise clothing causing limited usage and bad odors. Therefore, nonchemical waterless cleasing and deodorizing capability alternatives are needed to meet the stringent up mass requirements for space exploration. In addition, biofilms are particularly difficult to eradicate due to their significantly enhanced resistance. To address microbial contamination for spacecrafts and habitats; ( i.e., interior surfaces, dirty exercise clothes, NOMEX, towels, EVA spacesuit undergarment cooling systems, water systems and components), focused microwave energy will be assessed to determine its efficacy for bacteria/biofilm eradication in these critical problem areas.

This project will assess focused microwave energy at specific frequencies to target and kill bacteria and biofilm in three critical problem areas:
1. Bacteria present on surfaces for a variety of housekeeping activities/applications on the International Space Station (ISS) and future, next generation spacecraft and habitats
2. Biofilms (bacteria growing in colonies) which are highly resistant and currently very difficult to eliminate 
3. Astronaut clothing and towels. Used exercise clothes cause bad odors on ISS and are currently discarded after approximately two to three weeks resulting in significant costs due to up mass. Nonchemical and non/low water consuming alternatives are needed to solve these issues while reducing astronaut exposure to harmful chemicals.

Effectively sterilizing surfaces using microwave energy could provide a means to eradicate microbes, thereby preventing the spread of infection (preventive medicine), improving system functionality/longevity of components, and enhancing function of water systems by reducing/eliminating microbial contaminants and biofilms. Presently, NASA has no effective means to eradicate biofilms inside tubing of circulating water systems (astronaut undergarment thermal cooling system) or the ability to clean astronaut clothing with no water/detergents during spaceflight. This dual-use technology has the potential for not only being a viable approach for astronaut hygiene, housekeeping and laundry for extended missions (>1 year) but also as a means to effectively eradicate biofilms in medical devices.

Radio frequencies in the Ka-band (microwave) range are preferentially absorbed by dielectric materials (i.e. bacteria) where it is converted to heat, leading to death of the bacteria. Characterizing exposure conditions to optimize bacteria kill in biofilm is nontrivial and is a function of bacterial species' sensitivities, microwave emitter power and frequency, antenna design and emitting surface area, target proximity, and time of exposure. This proposal is expected to establish the protocols (exposure requirements and dose responses of biological relevance) for using microwave energy to effectively sterilize and eliminate bacteria/biofilm contamination.

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