New Process Could Turn Astronaut Urine Into Fuel, Drinking Water

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rredOrbit Staff & Wire Reports – Your Universe Online

It might not be as glamorous as taking the first steps on the moon or sending a rover to explore Mars, but new research appearing in the journal ACS Sustainable Chemistry & Engineering could solve an age-old problem associated with space travel: what to do with all of the astronaut pee produced during interstellar travel?

Rather than just ejecting the fluid waste into the universe, scientists from the University of Puerto Rico’s Rio Piedras Campus and the NASA Ames Research Center in Mountain View, California are reportedly developing a new technique that would allow astronaut pee to be converted into either fuel or drinking water.

As study authors Eduardo Nicolau, Carlos R. Cabrera and their colleagues explain, human waste on extended space missions comprises approximately half of the mission’s total waste amount. Recycling it is essential to keeping the environment clean for the astronauts, and when properly treated, recycled urine can become an essential source of drinking water when onboard H2O supplies begin to dwindle.

The method would eliminate the need for water to be delivered from Earth, which is tremendously expensive, and previous research has demonstrated that a treatment process known as forward osmosis could be combined with fuel cells to generate power. The findings could also lead to new ways to treat wastewater here on Earth.

The researchers looked to build upon previous studies in order to find a way to not only solve the problem of how to deal with urine during space travel, but to also make it useful to the crew members. They collected urine and shower wastewater and processed it using forward osmosis to filter contaminants from urea.

Using their new Urea Bioreactor Electrochemical system (UBE), Nicolau’s team was able to convert this combination of urine and wastewater into ammonia in a bioreactor. They then converted that ammonia into energy using its fuel cell. While the system was designed with space travel in mind, the investigators said “the results showed that the UBE system could be used in any wastewater treatment systems containing urea and/or ammonia.”

“The results of this research showed the feasibility of interfacing wastewater-recycling processes with bioelectrochemical systems to achieve water recycling while reusing useful resources,” they wrote in their study. They also reported that the UBE systems removed approximately 80 percent of organic carbon from the waste and successfully converted roughly 86 percent of the urea into ammonia.