Down to Earth: sniffing out bedbugs

How can space technology help us in our beds?
30 April 2019

Interview with 

Stuart Higgins, Imperial College London


A bed bug nymph (Cimex lectularius) as it was in the process of ingesting a blood meal from the arm of a “voluntary” human host


It’s time to get “down to Earth”, with Stuart Higgins and hear about another invention originally intended for space that’s also changing life for the better back here on the ground...

Stuart - What happens when the science and technology of space comes Down to Earth?

Welcome to Down to Earth from the Naked Scientists, the miniseries that explores spin-offs from space technology that are being used on earth. I'm Dr Stuart Higgins.

This episode: how the technology developed to detect gases on the surface of a comet is now being used to hunt out bedbugs in hotels.

On November 12, 2014, scientists from the Rosetta mission pulled off one of the most audacious manoeuvres in space science history. They managed to land a probe called Philae on the surface of a comet. Philae discovered a rich aroma of organic molecules suggesting that the chemical ingredients for life were present in the early universe when the comet was formed. Philae had multiple scientific instruments on board including a gas chromatography mass spectrometer, which is actually two instruments built into one.

The gas chromatograph was used to split up a sample into its fundamental molecules. It does this by blowing the sample through a long tube. The tube is heated and the molecules are vaporised. Different molecules stick and unstick to the walls of the tube at different speeds. Slowly they separate out arriving at the end of the tube at different times.

The mass spectrometer takes these separated molecules and ionises them, bombarding them with electrons which breaks up into electrically charged parts. These charged parts are separated using an electric field and are measured by a detector. Using signals from both parts of the system and comparing the results to experiments carried out on Earth with known materials, it's possible to work out what the original sample was.

A gas chromatography mass spectrometer can smell the air and work out what chemicals it contains. Back on Earth this machine can take up the same space as two kitchen ovens but for the Philae probe engineers needed to cram the technology into the size of a small shoebox, and it's this development that one British company is using to help hunt for unwanted life closer to home.

Bedbugs are bloodsucking parasites that hide inside mattresses and come out at night to feed on unsuspecting humans. While not dangerous, bedbugs aren't particularly pleasant. They can be hard to get rid of and dealing with outbreaks in hotels can be expensive. One company is using the technology from the Philae probe to help develop a portable bedbug detector. Bedbugs give off a range of organic molecules so analysing air samples can reveal their presence.

The detector aims to help hotels avoid unwanted guests and outbreaks and is currently on trial across the UK. So that's how the technology developed to carry out science experiments on a comet is helping hotels in the UK stay bedbug free.

That was Down-to-Earth from the Naked Scientists. My name is Dr Stuart Higgins and join me again soon to learn more about space technology that is being used back on Earth.


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