Astronauts may have solved the problem of smelly chips

2 Dec 2016

Image: Untitled/Shutterstock

A novel series of cold plasma experiments aboard the International Space Station (ISS) could result in odourless chip shops.

The smell of deep-fried chips is noticeable, and appealing to many, but it may be eliminated in the future. Created by the release of malodorous molecules that are extremely hard to remove or disperse, the European Space Agency (ESA) has funded research into how cold plasma could eradicate the issue.


These odours are typically destroyed in bulky and expensive commercial cooker hoods by chemicals, which results in the creation of dangerous ozone that must also be removed.

But, armed with technology from Blümchen, astronauts are developing a new cleaning process.

The plasma crystal experiments are among the most successful research projects on the ISS, with the special laboratory one of the first installed on the station.

Dozens of papers have been published on related experiments undergone aboard the ISS, but the latest could prove more effective on the high streets of Europe.

Using cold, room-temperature plasma, which the ESA calls an “extremely effective bactericidal agent” that can also tackle fungi, viruses and spores, the future of chip shops could be spinning above our heads this very moment.

Safe to touch, the plasma is generated by sparking a glowing electrical discharge in the air between a short rod electrode sitting in the middle of a cylindrical electrode.

The discharge is initially a narrow line about 1mm thick somewhere between the electrodes, but when it is made to move rapidly by a magnetic field, it spreads out to produce a plasma disc. The foul air is then passed through this disc for cleaning.

Funded by the ESA and in collaboration with the Russian space agency, scientists led by Prof Gregor Morfill now think it represents a modern, faster, more effective cleaning technique than traditional approaches.

“The new design works by using electrons within the plasma to neutralise odours,” explained Morfill. “The thin plasma sheet breaks the offending molecules up into harmless components that do not smell and do not need to be extracted afterwards.

“It’s also about a thousand times faster than the traditional chemical method.”

Taking advantage of weightlessness in orbit to study complex plasmas, which provided the impetus to develop the cold plasma technology, Morfill’s team is currently working on the fourth cycle of such research aboard the ISS.

Gordon Hunt was a journalist with Silicon Republic