Tiny Bacteria Are Eating America's Fighter Jets

The United States Air Force is spending over a billion dollars on aircraft maintenance because of corrosion issues caused by tiny organic microbes, Popular Mechanics reports. Here’s how material scientists plan to fight these little pests.

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When I wrote about my thoroughly-rusted Willys Jeep transmission, one commenter with a Ph.D. in microbiology thought the corrosion looked microbial in nature, and even sent me an entire presentation on how living organisms can actually accelerate corrosion and destroy metal parts.

But if that thoroughly-destroyed transmission isn’t enough to convince you that this “microbially-induced corrosion” thing is a big deal, Popular Mechanics says the U.S. Air Force could be spending up to $1.2 billion per year solely to fight these critters


Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James says the average Air Force plane is 27 years old, driving an increased need to study and mitigate corrosion. Popular Mechanics reports that material scientists at the Air Force Research Lab have been trying to do just that in an effort to prevent aircraft from being eaten by mold, mildew, fungi and bacteria— contaminants that can produce corrosive acids and enzymes.


All of these biocontaminants, the tech site says, can make their way to the surface of a jet via human contact during maintenance, moisture in the air, new environmentally-friendly aircraft surface finishes, or biofuels, the latter of which is gaining increasingly prominent use in the military in an effort to reduce dependence on fossil fuels. Unfortunately, though, biofuels are comprised of bacteria-harboring vegetable oils and animal fats.

Microorganisms from these various sources are eating away the surface finishes of airplanes, and unfortunately, it’s hard to disinfect the planes to kill the little critters. Often times, the worst spots are in tight nooks and crannies where technicians can’t reach, and unfortunately, power washers are rarely able to rid of the microbes entirely.


But Popular Mechanics says the Air Force Research Lab has a plan to prevent these little organisms from destroying planes, and it involves a thermal decontamination process originally developed to clean biological warfare attack agents off of jets before they return to the U.S.


The process is called the Joint Biological Agent Decontamination System, and it essentially just heats up the aircrafts in an oven to about 180 degrees F to kill bio agents and viruses. According to the Wright-Patterson Airforce Base, the process “eliminates over 99.9 percent of biological contaminants on aircraft surfaces.” Plus, since it kills microbes, the chance of them regrowing is hugely decreased.

This process, expected to be implemented by 2017, will not only make it easier to kill hard-to-reach microorganisms eating away at F-16 jets, but the Wright-Patterson Airforce Base says the process is much quicker and cheaper than requiring technicians to do the job manually.


Hopefully this plan works, because $1.2 billion for a bunch of little microorganisms is no joke.


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