June 25, 2012
Credit: Photo: NASA
Since the International Space Station (ISS) first became habitable in 2000, researchers have been using it to study the impact of the near-zero-gravity environment, making new discoveries in the life sciences, biomedicine and materials science that are spurring development of ground-breaking high-tech spinoffs on Earth.
In Europe, researchers at the Max Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics are using plasma—electrically charged gas—to develop tools that can zap drug-resistant bacteria and viruses that cause infections in hospitals, where the Multiple-Drug-Resistant Staphylococcus Aureus (MRSA) bacteria kills 37,000 people each year and affects more than 150,000 patients, adding about €380 million ($488 million) in extra costs to EU healthcare systems.
“Resistant bacteria are killed by plasma in a few seconds,” says Gregor Morfill, director of the Max Planck Institute based in Germany. “This is a great advantage to have that kind of a weapon at your disposal.”
Plasma research on the ISS initially took place in the Plasmakristall Experiment Nefedov lab, which was replaced in 2006 by the PK-3 Plus lab. Both were developed under a bilateral effort between the German and Russian space agencies. The European Space Agency (ESA) is funding development of a third-generation lab to continue complex plasma experiments on the ISS beyond 2013.
Research done to date is developing plasma technologies that work with the human immune system to treat infections and speed the healing of burn wounds by as much as 15%, Morfill says. ESA is also helping Morfill's team to develop a hand disinfection system for hospitals, though so-called cold plasma technology could eventually be used in the home to sanitize surfaces as well as hard-to-reach cracks and crevices.
A logical next step for plasma technology, Morfill says, is global hygiene in underdeveloped countries, “where we believe that bringing plasma into those areas, for instance to make water drinkable and remove bacterial infection, is a very, very important area for health globally.”
Morfill says plasma technology is also being used in dental hygiene and food sterilization and could one day be used to protect seeds from infection and even stimulate plants to grow more quickly.