5 mins read 15 Mar 2021

Boeing & UQ Develop Virus beating Surface Coating test for the ISS

An experiment containing an antimicrobial surface coating, developed in collaboration between Boeing and The University of Queensland has made its way onto the International Space Station (ISS) for testing to research the microbial risks that astronauts face during space travel.

Dr Shannon Walker, one of the astronauts of the expedition 64 crew touches the samples with the new coating. Credit NASA.

In January this year, a new experiment was added to the ISS National Lab that features a joint project between Boeing and University of Queensland (UQ) in which two sets of material objects were set up on board the ISS for the crew to touch at regular intervals. 

These objects, known as coupons, are existing parts of regular aircraft and spacecraft equipment such as seat buckles, door handles, tray tables and armrests - the kinds of things that would be touched a lot (and thus, become microbial transmission hotspots) onboard an aircraft, or spacecraft.

One set of coupons was sent as a control set with no coating and a second set was sent with a coating of the Boeing Environment Responding Antimicrobial Coating (BERC). On board the International Space Station (ISS) the astronauts are required to touch both sets of samples regularly as part of the experiment. The results will be known when the samples are returned to Earth later this year for in-depth analysis.

These microbial tests aboard the ISS are  the culmination of a number of years of research, which included last year’s experiment on Boeing’s ecoDemonstrater aircraft as part of the company's confident travel initiative. 

The antimicrobial coating was originally designed for applications in space, however, according to Professor Michael Monterio, senior leader Australian Institute for Bioengineering and Nanotechnology (AIBN) the fact that ‘It’s a platform technology that can be adapted for any microbe or virus” meant that it could be modified to combat viruses, such as the SARS-CoV-2.

The current COVID-19 pandemic has brought into focus how much microbes pose a challenge to international travel. Traditional methods of preventing disease transmission on aircraft have focussed on improvements in air filtration and air-conditioning systems. Yet as we have seen during the current pandemic, surfaces can play a significant part in transmission.

These tests are designed to “see what the antimicrobial coating does to suppress microbial growth,” said Dr Jason Armstrong, senior manager Senior Manager Anti-Microbials, Boeing Research & Technology-Australia.

The current testing aboard the International Space Station is part of a wider range of tests that involve an exact same set of coupons going through the same process in an Earth based laboratory. The testing will also look at ensuring that the polymer also conforms to a variety of standards to ensure that it is safe for use in both aircraft and space.

Whilst how it will be applied is currently still being explored, it is hoped that there will be a number of application methods, making the coating amenable to as many different surfaces as possible according to Armstrong.

Who cleans the ISS?

NASA astronaut Joe Acaba, Expedition 32 flight engineer, uses a vacuum cleaner during housekeeping operations in the Permanent Multipurpose Module (PMM) of the International Space Station. (Credit NASA)

There are a number of reasons it is important to clean the ISS. In general space travel has an impact on the astronauts themselves leading to a compromised immune system, so whilst we can’t completely remove any microbes, it is important to limit them as much as possible. 

They currently use low ph wipes onboard the ISS for cleaning, which isn’t necessarily the best approach according to Armstrong. 

There is also a risk to the space station, where microbes are able to corrode alloys and polymers. So with the help of special air filters that trap dust, it is down to the astronauts to keep the ISS clean. Antimicrobial wipes are used to keep the microbes under control, along with regular vacuuming and ensuring any sweaty gear is not allowed to go mouldy.

Under these conditions, it can be easy to see why an antimicrobial coating would be an attractive option for future and larger space stations, and astronauts who spend longer timeframes in space and eventual exploration of other planets. Future space stations may also need to be left unattended for long periods of time which will also require a means of inhibiting mould, fungus or bacteria growth. 

The coating has three main aims, according to Armstrong, firstly to support the astronauts, secondly to prevent microbe contamination and finally to prevent the introduction of microbes into an alien environment such as Mars.

UQ and Boeing

Boeing Research and Technology, relocated to UQ in 2017, this first of its kind partnership in the Asia-Pacific region, has led to the development of the BERC. The relationship between the two organisations goes back to 2003. The onsite Boeing team consists of around 30 research and technical staff who work closely with around 400 UQ researchers in a number of areas including aerospace, human movements and neuroscience. Boeing, also, currently funds a number of research scholarships at UQ looking at subjects such as weather simulation and wearable devices. Software engineers from Boeing recently supported UQ to develop a robot that teaches school children to code whilst also learning their local aboriginal language. 

Boeing is no stranger to the space industry, with Boeing Defence Australia (BDA) late last year announcing a partnership with Sydney based Sauber Astronautics to roll out a satellite diagnostics tool on board their fleet of Boeing’s 702 Geostationary Orbital (GEO) satellites. Another Sydney based company, Clearbox Systems also announced a collaboration with BDA in 2020. Clearbox Systems and BDA will work together to develop the next generation of Australia’s military satellite communication (SATCOM) capabilities.