Prevention of interplanetary contamination is imperative in space research missions to protect the celestial body of interest from earthly organisms (forward contamination) and the Earth from extra-terrestrial agents (backward contamination). With the advent of advanced materials and electronics highly sensitive to currently approved sterilization technologies by the NASA, there is a need for alternative sterilization technologies. Research shows that dielectric barrier discharge (DBD), a type of non-thermal plasma (NTP), has great potential as an alternative method. DBD reactors generate reactive oxygen species (ROS) by ionization of atmospheric air and utilize them for disinfection. Among these, ozone has a high oxidation potential making it more effective in eradicating bacteria and viruses than other disinfectants. SurfPlasma proposes to leverage our plasma generation technologies and experience to create a safe, compact, and energy-efficient ozone-based DBD sterilization system (Active Plasma Sterilizer, APS) with an inbuilt ozone mixing and residual ozone removal system for sterilization in spacecraft facilities pertaining to planetary protection. As part of this project, we will create and test a prototype of the APS utilizing our patented technology—the Compact Portable Plasma Reactor—which is small, portable, modularly scalable, and energy-efficient for ozone generation and distribution, along with a catalytic ozone decomposition system for residual ozone removal. Testing will be performed for determining sterilization efficacy, power consumption, optimal operating conditions, material compatibility, and ozone penetration into complex materials. Further, we will investigate the option to treat excess and residual ozone with ozone catalytic converters. Thus, we will create a safe, low power, modularly scalable, and customizable prototype for the APS and establish its effectiveness and compatibility with materials relevant in space missions.
Potential NASA applications pertaining to planetary protection include safe sterilization of sample acquisition equipment, surfaces and space suits pre- and post-launch, personal and office equipment including badges and communication equipment. The equipment can be decontaminated by the Active Plasma Sterilizer (APS) on Earth or on mission in space. SurfPlasma APS would be especially useful for equipment with tortuous and hidden surfaces where UV systems would not be able to penetrate, and heat or harsh chemicals may affect equipment lifetime.
Commercialization potential for the technology includes produce preservation maintaining food quality decontaminating spoilage microorganisms. The potential market spans from harvest to distribution to consumer storage of produce. Also, the technology can easily be adapted to decontaminate PPEs of hospital employees and even everyday items such as children’s toys, clothing, bags, shoes, etc.