NASA Finding Ways to Re-use Waste

So you want to go to Mars? Here’s something to think about.

You’re going to have to eat and drink the same things, over and over again. What comes out of your body will have to go back in again, day after day after day.

NASA estimates that it would take more than 13 tons of water, food and air to keep one person in space for one year. So a three-person crew on a two year mission to Mars would need to take along at least 78 tons of stuff just to stay alive.

That isn’t going to happen, according to John Warwick, chairman of the Department of Environmental Engineering Sciences at the University of Florida, who heads up an innovative new NASA project. No one’s going to Mars unless the payload of life-sustaining necessities can be dramatically reduced, he says.

Mission to Re-Use

“When you go to Mars, you’re looking at being gone for a long period of time,” Warwick says, and it wouldn’t be possible to carry enough water, let alone food, to keep you alive. “There’s no way you can afford to launch the quantity of water that would be required.”

The answer, he says, is to come up with the ultimate in recycling technologies. Everything will have to be recycled, from packaging materials to human wastes, both liquid and solid.

Warwick is director of the newly established Environmental Systems Commercial Space Technology Center on the Gainesville campus of the University of Florida. The center is funded by NASA for five years to the tune of $2.5 million. Its purpose is two-fold: to meet the needs of NASA for the level of recycling that will be necessary for long term space flight, and at the same time develop technologies that can be used here on Earth.

NASA has already experimented with recycling of waste water, including human urine, and the International Space Station is expected to use some recycling. But the space station can be resupplied fairly easily because it will remain close to the Earth, so the urgency there is not as great as for a trip to Mars that could take at least two years.

So the task facing Warwick and his colleagues is to take it to the next level.

Other partners in the center include the University of North Carolina, North Carolina State University and the University of Central Florida, and 10 corporations with expertise in recycling.

Drinking Water From Urine

Water is the big issue because it takes so much of it to keep us alive. There are lots of ways to purify and reuse water, but most involve high energy costs, bulky equipment, and an unacceptable risk of failure.

A space-borne system has to work as well on the last day of the mission as on the first, Warwick points out, so it has to be extremely reliable, compact and efficient.

And here’s the innovative part. If such a system can be developed for a space craft, it could have many applications closer to home. That’s why NASA has insisted on a two-pronged attack, satisfying the needs of space flight with a technology that can be useful for the rest of us.

“If we can close the loop in terms of water recovery, that has a lot of applications in arid parts of our planet,” Warwick says. He sees the Department of Defense as one of his principal “customers,” because a highly mobile armed forces has many of the same needs as NASA.

“You don’t want to be carting around stuff which is heavy and bulky,” he says. “You want things that are highly portable and allow your forces to go into an area which may be very dry, and be there for some period of time.”

Recycling the Other Stuff

Of course, some of the needs of space flight are more exotic than might be necessary for earthly applications. It’s hard to imagine soldiers recycling their solid wastes, for example, but that will be necessary for a trip to Mars.

How do you do that and make breakfast palatable?

First, you get the water out, because there’s a lot of water in solid waste, and you purify that and drink it again. Then you take the nutrients from the solids, like nitrogen and phosphorus, and use them as fertilizer for the crops that will have to be grown during the mission.

That way at least you’re not forced to sit down to a brown burrito, but rest assured it will all come back some way. Maybe as a freshly grown vegetable.

Warwick is the first to admit he doesn’t know how to accomplish all that. That’s why the center was set up essentially as a think tank. His job will be to bang a lot of heads together and see what comes out.

“I think there are a lot of ideas out there,” he says. “The challenge for the center is going to be to cull through all the ideas and to really make sure that projects that are going to get funded have the appropriate science and engineering behind them.”

The NASA grant covers only the cost of operating the center. Ideas that emerge will have to find separate funding, and the center will act sort of like a broker, lining up government agencies like the Department of Defense, and of course NASA, for the necessary funding.

That’s one of the reasons NASA wanted a commercial side to the project, because that increases the odds of finding other partners.

But the long range goal is extended space travel. It will take a lot of experimentation to find the right solutions.

So if Prof. Warwick invites you to dinner at his place, you might want to bring your own food and drink. At least until he has worked all the bugs out.

Lee Dye’s column appears weekly on A former science writer for the Los Angeles Times, he now lives in Juneau, Alaska.