Edmonds Community College students have partnered with a local technology company to test how well plasma jets can eliminate specific types of bacteria from the surface of spacecraft.
Eagle Harbor Technologies (EHT), a small but growing Seattle-based tech company, was awarded a NASA Phase I Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) grant to develop and test plasma jet technology for killing endospores on spacecraft surfaces.
“Endospores are a sort of ‘suspended animation’ form of certain species of bacteria that are extremely resistant and can survive harsh chemicals, UV light, heat, and even the vacuum of space,” Edmonds CC Microbiology instructor Jonathan Miller said.
Miller consulted with EHT to draft the grant proposal. The project’s primary goal is to develop a large-area atmospheric pressure plasma jet for contamination control during space exploration.
“NASA wants to be able to sterilize spacecraft so as not to introduce microbes from Earth into space,” Miller said, “and there are limitations to the current approaches that they’d like to solve.”
Last summer, EHT worked to develop and characterize appropriate plasma jet technology, while Miller and a small group of students designed experiments to test the effectiveness of the technology.
Edmonds CC biology student Chris Nguyen said a lot of “brute force work,” like testing multiple protocols and procedures, was done over the summer to lay the groundwork for further research in the fall.
According to Miller, there are many variables that could impact the effectiveness of the plasma torch on killing the bacteria, so the students screened more than 900 combinations of pulse width, frequency, voltage, electrode placement, jet configuration, exposure time, exposure distance, gas composition, and gas flow rate.
Nguyen, who’s been fascinated with space since a childhood trip to Kennedy Space Center, jumped at the chance to conduct research using EHT’s cutting-edge technology.
“We get to use a machine that only a handful of people in the world get to use,” Nguyen said. “Plasma physics is a field that isn’t really understood yet, so they’re [EHT] trying to break barriers in that field, and we’re trying to apply their technology.”
EHT provided the students with one of its unique power supplies which allowed the students to create a “plasma plume” with independently-controlled variables.
“It’s rare for these types of atmospheric plasma jets to be powered by power supplies that allow independent control of pulse width, frequency, and voltage,” Miller said, “and our work has shown the importance of these variables in different arrangements in yielding good plasma plume production.”
Plasma jet technology could impact NASA’s potential missions to Mars, Europa, and Enceladus.
Nguyen spent about 200 hours working on the project in the Edmonds CC microbiology lab. He was one of eight students who dedicated time outside of their regular coursework and studies to participate in the project.
Cali Drake, a nursing student, said as soon as she heard the word “plasma” she was in. She has an interest in nuclear physics and plasma fusion, and this project provided the opportunity for hands-on research experience.
“I’ve enjoyed being a part of discovering things that are unknown and trying to figure out things that are on the forefront and aren’t already experiments that have been done over and over again where the outcomes are known,” Drake said.
Drake spent about 100 hours in the lab during fall quarter. This left her with less time to study, but she said the experience enhanced her learning in the classroom.
“This has been a different kind of learning,” Drake said. “We’re actively learning and continuously applying what we’ve learned throughout the quarter rather than the short time we have during our required labs. It’s been much more hands on.”
The students concluded their research in December. EHT’s initial grant provided funding from June through December, and it has submitted a proposal for NASA’s Phase II grant to continue its research and collaboration with Edmonds CC.
“We’ve worked hard in the Biology Department in recent years to provide real undergraduate research opportunities for our students,” Miller said, “and it’s been great being able to support this type of work with an outside grant from NASA.”
For more information about EHT’s research and grants, visit EagleHarborTech.com/Research. For information about undergraduate research at Edmonds CC, visit edcc.edu/programs/ugr.