Solid, liquid, gas and plasma: of the four states of matter which can be observed in daily life, only one is likely to receive puzzled looks. Yet plasma – from the Ancient Greek word for ‘moldable substance’ – may be the most common form of ordinary matter in the universe. It could also provide important breakthroughs in various sectors, from medical sterilization to clean drinking water. Former TU Eindhoven student and High Tech Systems Center (HTSC) employee Zohreh Jafari outlines the Microbial Contamination Control project.
Zohreh’s involvement with HTSC has its origins in the PDEng instrumentation program, which culminates in a design project at a leading high-tech company or healthcare facility. “My main project,” begins Zohreh, “was related to plasma for disinfection and the sterilization of dental instruments: how does this complex system work and how can it be effective for disinfection? We had already had the Contamination Control project, but that was mainly in the domain of semiconductors for companies like ASML. When I finished my PDEng, I received a request from my supervisor, Jan-Jaap Koning of HTSC, to create a consortium for microbiological contamination.”
In a nutshell, the Microbial Contamination Control aims to connect companies and academia for solutions to bacteria, virus and fungi-related problems using their natural enemy, plasma. This is generated naturally by lightning, for instance, but can also be created artificially by heating a neutral gas or exposing it to an electromagnetic field. “Plasma creates ions, radicals and high-energy molecules which are very reactive with cells,” explains Zohreh. “For example, they can affect the membranes of bacteria and pathogens or even their DNA. It’s not yet clear how this works, but it can kill and deactivate microorganisms. COVID-19 is one example of a virus with a membrane that could be affected in this way.”
In the fight against such pathogens, different medical industries are united by the need to safeguard the dental or surgical instruments used on multiple patients. “They need to be cleaned, and they need to be cleaned fast,” continues Zohreh. “In the current situation, cleaning is done with chemicals which can be dangerous, so the instruments need to then be cleaned again with water. Air is also needed to dry these instruments. If this isn’t clean, it can cause infections. Plasma is beneficial because its ions don’t stay reactive or harmful for too long. After a few seconds or minutes, they return to their main molecules – oxygen, air or whatever it was before.”
As with any new technology, investments are needed to reach its full potential. For investments to be made, industry must see a possible application, so Zohreh’s initial role was to reach out to companies and gauge their opinion on the use of plasma. Zohreh: “Every company has different problems – there is no common issue, so one of my main tasks was to understand what companies are facing right now. We wanted to know if the university can help to solve these. I started with exploration: a definition and explanation of the project. What is beneficial for the university? And what is beneficial for companies when coming together in this consortium?”
This approach has proven successful, with big names such as Philips, DEMCON Macawi and Wetsus having already shared their concerns with Zohreh. Wassenburg Medical, one of the world’s leading companies for endoscope reprocessing products and solutions, has been particularly interested in collaboration on the cleaning of machines used to peek into the body’s interior. “I have an engineering background and some technical knowledge of plasma and could understand the whole system of companies like Wassenburg, so I could go to them to see their actual products,” says Zohreh. “We met together with professors of the university, brainstormed possible research or technical help for the companies and I then put them in touch with researchers at the university – particularly in the Department of Electrical Energy Systems (for the source of plasma), Elementary Processing Gas Discharge in the Department of Applied Physics and the biosensing departments – to see if they’re already doing research on those applications or could start a project on them.”
“It’s a very slow process, but it’s important that we have these connections. Within the university, you sometimes see the same research being done in different departments because there hasn’t always been good communication. The university is a large institution with hundreds of research groups. It’s not so different at companies. Every one of them has different needs and if the university knows what their problems are, they can do more practical research.” In other words, consortia are about more than just bridging the gap between industry and academia: by opening up lines of communication internally, research as a whole can be streamlined to increase the overall chances of real-world application.
“For companies that are already facing problems or thinking about the next generation of their products, I would recommend that they contact HTSC themselves,” concludes Zohreh. “HTSC is in contact with different departments and there are many people who have previously worked at interested companies or have a great network with them. If you contact HTSC, I’m sure they’ll welcome your ideas and will be happy to guide you to the right people. You could even start a new project with other companies with the same problem. A lot more can be done together than apart.”