Published: 05 February 2019

Could plasma technology make food safer?

Surrey’s researchers in chemical engineering and nutritional sciences are working with Surrey Space Centre spin-out company Fourth State to explore how plasma technology could kill resistant bacteria ‘biofilms’ in the food industry.

The project, which begins in February 2019, is being funded by the National Biofilms Innovation Centre (NBIC), an Innovation Knowledge Centre co-funded by BBSRC, Innovate UK and the Hartree Centre. It is a collaboration between Surrey’s BioProChem research group within the Department of Chemical and Process Engineering, the Department of Nutritional Sciences, the Surrey Space Centre and external partner Fourth State Medicine Ltd.

The research team will investigate how novel plasma technology developed by Fourth State interacts with biofilms – layers of bacteria which cluster together, and are hard to kill, even on an industrial surface such as metal. Plasma is the ‘fourth state of matter’ and consists of ionised gas. Examples in nature include lightning strikes, the aurora and the sun, while technological applications in the past have included etching of silicon chips for smartphones, advanced space propulsion systems and controlled nuclear fusion reactors.

This project will be the first attempt at applying Fourth State’s plasma technology, originally developed for healthcare applications, in the food industry.

Head of the BioProChem group Dr Eirini Velliou, who is leading the project at Surrey, explained: “We know that plasma can kill bacteria but at present we don’t have an understanding of how this works. We will be simulating different food environments to find out more about how these biofilms form, their chemistry and structure, and how different conditions affect the ability of plasma to kill them.”

With bacteria becoming increasingly resistant due to climate change and other factors, it is estimated that by 2050 more people will die of bacterial infections than from cancer. The strong detergents used to kill bacteria in food environments are not only toxic and damaging to the environment, they are also responsible for increasing the resistance of bacteria. Plasma, as an alternative solution, could be less invasive, more environmentally friendly and – since the process can be automated – more cost-effective.

“This project will not only give us important fundamental knowledge about how plasma interacts with biofilms, we also hope that it will lead to real application in industry using a scaled-up process. It will also enable us to validate and improve our food product models across different industrial surfaces.”

Dr Tom Wantock, Research & Innovation Manager at Fourth State, said of the new project: “The company was spun out of the Surrey Space Centre’s plasma propulsion group to realise the potential of plasma technology in healthcare. We’re very excited to be working with Surrey and NBIC to explore further related applications with significant global impact, such as management of biofilms in the food industry.”

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