Aerospace Engineering Laboratory Embraces Diatoms


Dr. Santiago Garcia’s research group at the department of Aerospace Structures and Materials at the Faculty of Aerospace Engineering is currently investigating the potential use of algae as a source to develop environmentally friendly surface treatments and coatings for corrosion protection.

Delft University of Technology’s (TUDelft) department of Aerospace Structures and Materials is currently investigating the potential use of algae as a source to develop environmentally friendly surface treatments and coatings for corrosion protection.

Leading this project team at the Dutch research center is Dr. Santiago Garcia. “The research we are doing with algae and other microorganisms (e.g. fungi) has sparked the interest of academics and industry alike to study the potential that microorganisms may hide for the development of novel surfaces and materials for aircraft and spacecraft,” he says.

In a preliminary work in collaboration with Dr. Corina Brussaard from the Royal Netherlands Institute for Sea Research (NIOZ), the research team explored how different diatom monocultures grow biofilms on different aerospace relevant materials observing crucial differences. This has been followed by interdisciplinary research carried out by Sèra Zalman, an MSc student of the Faculty of Aerospace Engineering.

In her MSc thesis, Ms. Zalman is performing a detailed study to understand the potential effect that local microstructure of aerospace aluminum alloys has on the motility and surface interaction of a selected diatom species. Besides this line of research with living diatoms, PhD candidate Jingjing Zhao is studying how to make an efficient use of diatom exoskeletons to protect aircraft against corrosion in the framework of an ongoing research collaboration with Airbus.

Now that the starting infrastructure has been established and the first promising scientific results have been obtained, the team intends to consolidate the work and expand the perspectives of this promising research through solid collaborations with other academics and industry.

Starting this research would not have been possible without some initial investment in basic equipment such as a new incubator, which was partially sponsored by Aerospace Engineering alumni and the Delft University Fund. The incubator allows the research team to grow the algae in their labs which is very useful when doing this kind of research where control growth parameters, time, and environmental cyclic exposure may have an impact on the algae-surface interactions. An incubator at the very lab where the characterization takes place reduces the risk of disturbing the cultures and allows for more direct parameter-property relationship studies.

“Getting this project started took us quite some effort,” says Dr. Garcia, “as we had to begin a totally new research topic and get into scientific domains quite uncommon for material scientists and engineers. This required the establishment of new collaborations and protocols in our lab but also the strong support from NIOZ and colleagues at TNW (Applied Sciences) to whom we are very thankful. It is a pleasure to see that we established solid and fruitful collaborations that should lead to more breakthrough and exciting interdisciplinary research.”

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