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The University of Southampton

Space tech to revolutionise infection control in hospitals

Published: 27 March 2024
Plasma generator
Plasma generator used within the PASTA device

Scientists from the University of Southampton are using space technology to tackle infection control in hospitals – and help them cut their carbon emissions.

Project PASTA (Plasma Air Sterilisation and Treatment Apparatus) uses the same plasma technology that is used to de-orbit satellites , originally seen onboard the Space X Falcon 9 flight.

Developed by Dr Minkwan Kim , Associate Professor in Astronautics, the space technology has been adapted for Earthly uses – with prototypes of the system currently being trialled at Royal Hampshire County Hospital in Winchester.

Dr Kim explained: “In space, we’re using the applications’ physical momentum while, on Earth, we’re looking at the chemical characteristics to kill pathogens and viruses that commonly cause healthcare-associated infections.

“In fact, more than 300,000 patients a year in England acquire an airborne virus while receiving medical treatment in hospital. Our main aim is to address that problem directly, helping to protect both patients and staff within hospital environments.

“When plasma is generated, it also generates reactive species. This makes pathogens believe they are exposed to external threats, leading them to over-produce hydroperoxide – a cell-damaging agent - which kills the pathogen.”

Scientists behind the pasta project
PASTA project team

Current air handling systems rely on filtration and ventilation which, as Dr Kim explained, is not doing enough to help reduce patients’ exposure to airborne pathogens and decrease the spread of disease.

He said: “Current systems only dilute air with fresh air to reduce the chances of infection, so they do not eliminate the risk of pathogen transmission through the air completely and have been proven insufficient for the filtration of smaller pathogenic agents, like viruses.

“A plasma treatment system eliminates this concern, as we’re treating the air inside the hospital and properly sterilising it.”

As well as improvements to air quality, Dr Kim believes PASTA could positively impact hospital’s carbon footprints. He explained: “By improving the energy efficiency of a heating, ventilation, and air conditioning system, PASTA has the potential to significantly reduce emissions we see coming from hospitals.

“In fact, our findings estimate that we could reduce a hospital’s energy bill by at least 50 per cent, compared to current filter systems – as well as the added bonus of noise reduction caused by their fans.”

The project was funded by the NHS Future Hospital Initiative Programme of the European Space Agency.

Find out more about the PASTA project here.

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