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The University of Southampton

Pure water: providing an affordable water treatment solution for use in space

Published: 1 February 2017
Plasma source
Plasma source in the ANTC lab

Key details of this case study:

Summary: We are developing an affordable alternative solution to conventional water treatment, without the need for chemicals or heat, for use in resource limited, remote locations such as space exploration and developing countries.

 Status: Ongoing

 Key staff: Dr Min Kwan Kim


Explore this case study:

The challenge

The sanitisation of spacecraft and astronauts is one of the key engineering challenges for future planetary missions, with water being the most valuable resource for prospective long-term manned space exploration.

The recycling, or reusing, of on-board water is the only practical option to supporting long human spaceflight missions.  All source water recycled or reused must be purified by removing organic volatiles, bacteria and viral particles of known and unknown origin.

Although conventional water treatment methods can produce safe and clean drinking water, they involve the use of large amounts of chemicals to remove dissolved and suspended contaminants and disinfection of the water, as well as the infrastructure to accommodate storage, making this method unsuitable for long-term space missions with limited resources. Therefore, advanced technologies are needed to provide affordable in situ water treatment solutions for these types of space mission.

What we did

Our research is exploring the use of non-thermal plasma as a water treatment method. A non-thermal atmospheric plasma (NTP) can operate at room temperature, and has attracted considerable attention due to its extraordinary and unique capability on nonspecific antibacterial effects.

The effectiveness of plasma water treatment is determined by its chemical composition and plasma parameters, which are dependent on the method of generating NTP. The most popular method of NTP generation is based on dielectric barrier discharge (DBD) due to its simplicity and stability.

Despite this advantage, a DBD plasma is limited by its non-uniformity. Although this can be improved by operating DBD in a diffuse discharge mode, the mechanism of discharge mode transition is complex and there are many physical and operational factors determining the transition such as driving voltage, composition of the surrounding gas mixture and material properties of the dielectric barrier.

Our impact

Our research aims to improve the method of generating homogeneous non-thermal plasma, and provide a better understanding of discharge transition and plasma-liquid surface interaction.

In addition to the space environment, homogeneous NTP could be applied to a whole range of other areas including cancer therapy, food decontamination, environmental remediation and surface modification.

To achieve widespread use of NTP in these applications, the typically small NTP sources must be scaled up and be capable of treating uneven and sometimes wet surfaces, for example open wounds and complex surgical instruments, with uniform plasma, potentially having a profound impact on the UK’s public health and environment.

Plasma source
Plasma source in the ANTC lab

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