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How Plasma Technology From Space Will Save Our Lives

ISS research finds plasma has killing power against some of the nastiest of critters

It might sound obvious to anyone who’s ever played a video game in the past thirty years, but plasma has been found to be very effective at destroying some truly dangerous beasts. Except in this case, the battlefields aren’t space bases, they’re hospitals… and the creatures aren’t CGI alien monsters, they’re very real — and very dangerous — bacteria right here on Earth.

Scarier than any alien: 20,000x magnification of drug-resistant staphylococcus aureus bacteria (CDC)

Long-running experiments performed aboard the International Space Station have been instrumental in the development of plasma-based tools that can be used to kill bacteria in hospitals — especially potentially deadly strains of Methicillin-resistant staphylococcus aureus, also known as MRSA.

MRSA infections can occur in people who have undergone surgery or other invasive hospital procedures, or have weakened immune systems and are exposed to the bacteria in a hospital or other health care environment. A form of staph that’s become resistant to many antibiotics, MRSA is notoriously difficult to treat, easily transmitted — both in and out of hospitals — and deadly.

Various strains of MRSA infections have been found to be linked to mortality rates ranging from 10% to 50%.

Dr. Gregor Morfill, director of the Max Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics, has been researching the antimicrobial abilities of plasma in experiments running aboard the ISS since 2001. What he and his team have found is that cold plasma can effectively sanitize skin and surfaces, getting into cracks and crevices that soap and even UV light cannot. Even though bacteria like staphylococcus are constantly evolving resistances to medications, they wither under a barrage of plasma.

Eventually, Dr. Morfill’s research, funded by ESA, helped with the creation of a working prototype that could be used in hospitals — literally a plasma weapon for fighting microbes.

It's no BFG, but it can kill flesh-eating monsters in mass quantities (Photo: Max-Planck Institute for Extraterrestrial Physics)

This is yet another example of “trickle-down” technology developed in space. Over two dozen astronauts and cosmonauts have worked on the research aboard the ISS over the past decade, and one day you may have cold plasma disinfecting devices in your home, cleaning your toothbrushes and countertops.

In addition the technology could be used to clean exploration spacecraft, preventing contamination of other worlds with Earthly organisms.

“It has many practical applications, from hand hygiene to food hygiene, disinfection of medical instruments, personal hygiene, even dentistry,” said Dr. Morfill. “This could be used in many, many fields.”

Bacteria, prepare to get fragged.

News source: ScienceDaily. Top Doom3 image from http://www.moddb.com/.

Yum! Dirty fingers! (MPE)

About 

A graphic designer in Rhode Island, Jason writes about space exploration on his blog Lights In The Dark, Discovery News, and, of course, here on Universe Today. Ad astra!

Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Tim McDaniel May 23, 2012, 10:47 PM

    This sounds really valuable. My mother was exposed to MRSA in the hospital and getting her clean took a while. I’m curious about a point: why is the lab in orbit? You wouldn’t bother with the expense, the commute, and the limitations without a good reason.

    • Torbjörn Larsson May 26, 2012, 10:03 PM

      They have found that ISS can study diseases uniquely. Space environments lowers immune response, for reason as of yet unknown, for everyone including lab animals. So it goes much quicker to study diseases and resistance.

    • Inundated May 28, 2012, 1:04 PM

      I sifted through mounds of technical papers and found out that MRSA and many other bacteria cannot survive in a high MAGNESIUM environment. All the more reason to eat your GREEN veggies, especially Leafy Greens such as mustards, romaine, etc.

      Pumpkin seeds are another great magnesium rich snack.

      BLUE L.E.D light cast over the entire body are also effective. (A handheld unit is about $50).

      Tanqueray and Tonic, as well as red wine also work.

  • zkank May 23, 2012, 11:25 PM

    Contamination by diseases in hospitals is rampant because time and time again, study after study, it has been shown that a high percentage of staff have deplorable hygiene practices!

    This technology should be very useful to everyone esle, but for hospitals, let’s just get them to wash their hands more, first.

    • IVAN3MAN_AT_LARGE May 24, 2012, 12:02 AM

      Indeed, and also some people need to be taught how to wash their hands properly!

    • Inundated May 28, 2012, 12:54 PM

      Some workers deliberately walk around with dirty hands to kill off terminally ill patients. I know firsthand–my mother had liver cancer, and they expected her to live for at least a year or 2 after surgery. Instead, thanks to the evil hearted nursing staff who not only neglected her, but also denied her WATER–she couldn’t eat anymore thereafter, and went downhill rapidly. She died in 2 weeks, rather than 2 years.

  • Kawarthajon May 24, 2012, 4:02 AM

    How does this kill bacteria but not skin cells? What is cold plasma? How does the cold plasma get produced?

    • ren00r May 24, 2012, 6:38 AM

      In my opinion it affects both bacteria and skin, but attacking a bacterial cell wall, which must be rather well exposed to the environment, so the bacteria can interact with its surrounding, does much more damage than attacking the outer layer of skin, which is in fact dead.

    • Torbjörn Larsson May 26, 2012, 9:57 PM

      IIRC it kills all living cells. Our skin has evolved to consist of dead cells outermost as a protection before they fall off.

      A cold plasma has “cold” ions of some eV or some hundred K, while the electrons can be as hot as in metal conduction bands, some 20 keV.

      Cold plasma can be produced in a number of ways, but most practical here is an ion gun. A Kaufman source, a magnetic hollow cathode discharge is ejected through an acceleration grid and the beam neutralized so it can go some distance carrying the ions with.

      The hollow cathode discharge is the same as a neon tube discharge lamp, and the magnet makes it more efficient by trapping electrons close to the electrodes.

  • Aerandir90 May 24, 2012, 12:01 PM

    Hand-sanitizer of the future?

    On a different note, I was just thinking yesterday, wishing that UT had more articles on what kind of research was being done on the ISS and how it would affect us Earthlings. Nice coincidence to see this today. But I feel like more information could have been provided such as why this research needs to be done on the ISS and maybe a timeline of developments such as when a product can be released into the market etc.

    Nevertheless, keep these coming!

    • Torbjörn Larsson May 26, 2012, 10:05 PM

      Why ISS, see my response to Tim McDaniel.

  • DarkGnat May 24, 2012, 12:48 PM

    So this means that phased-plasma pulse rifles may become a reality after all? Sweet. Killing bacteria may not be as fun as killing inter dimensional cybernetic alien-demons, but I’m sure we will benefit just as much.

  • Olaf2 May 24, 2012, 4:34 PM

    The only problem is that this is a temporary solution. Bacteria evolve and become resistant.

    • Torbjörn Larsson May 26, 2012, 9:58 PM

      No, it kills all cells so no evolution of resistance is possible.

  • The Muss May 24, 2012, 6:15 PM

    In bacterias they have “plasmid”. It basically learns the chemicals and produces shield against them

    like when you drink pill and it doesn’t work next time, that’s because at least 1% bacteria have survived the “pill attack”. that’s because plasmid have prepared drug against it.

    and now they fight plasmid with plasma. What a “plasm” HA?

    • Jason Major May 24, 2012, 8:29 PM

      “Plasm” comes from the Latin/Greek roots meaning “shape” or “mold”.

    • Torbjörn Larsson May 26, 2012, 10:01 PM

      Plasmids, smaller bits of circular DNA with resistance genes et cetera. Bacteria can also exchange plasmids directly.

      The plasma kills all cells, so resistance is not a concern.

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