Currently, there is a need for sensing technology that can reliably detect microbial growth at its initial stages for air, surfaces, and potable water, well before substantial microbial growth, contamination, and microbial-induced corrosion can occur. The current approach used to determine microbial growth is through analytical microbiology, which relies on sampling from tanks and analysis of these grab samples in a high-tech laboratory with specialized equipment (e.g., polymerase chain reaction (PCR) DNA techniques). There are several drawbacks to this current approach. First, analysis of the dynamics of microbial growth and microbial contamination is completely lost; single grab samples over time are unlikely to show how fast the microbial growth is advancing, and if enough grab samples are taken to try to track the dynamics of microbial growth, there is then a sample number/volume challenge in being able to analyze many samples in a timely manner. Second, an analytical instrumentation laboratory requires highly specialized and trained scientists and operators, which limits the feasibility of many operations having good access to such a laboratory. Third, this approach is time intensive; it often takes days to weeks to obtain and analyze grab samples in an analytical laboratory. Finally, this approach does not offer any real-time or online information about microbial growth and therefore is likely to miss early-stage growth where identification and mitigation are ideal; the longer the microbes are allowed to grow, the worse the damage is to the air, surface, and water quality. For all of these reasons, on-line, inline technology is desired and required to enable spacecraft operations to easily identify microbial contamination in air, surfaces, and potable water early enough to address safety and health quality concerns.
Microbial and fungal contamination of the air, surfaces, and water resources on spacecraft is a major health hazard for astronauts. The risks include infection and illness, the release of microbially-produced toxins, alteration of astronaut immune systems, and the degradation of materials and equipment on spacecraft. Therefore, the real-time monitoring of microbial growth for air, surface, and water environments for crewed and uncrewed operations would provide ample warning for microbial growth prevention methods to be implemented.
The simplicity and elegance of this approach are that the array can be used for any mixture of metabolites across gas and liquid phase because it does not rely on one-to-one binding. This allows the technology to be easily implemented into different microbiological testing markets such as the agricultural industry, the water industry, the healthcare industry, and the oil and gas industry.