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How Scientists are transforming Astronaut Fecal waste into food for long Space flights?

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Longer Distance, Not enough Food

Humans dream about longer space missions and reaching far away other galaxies. However, the technology we have does not allow us to fulfil this dream as it still isn’t there yet. Development of the spacecrafts that will take astronauts to mars and other deep space missions is under process but one of the biggest issues is food. Can they take bulks of food on years of space travel? If not, then what will they eat? Maybe, they can somehow make new eatables on the spacecraft by using something organic that’s already present there! Bringing more resources means higher expenses, the heavier spacecraft will require more fuel and the scientists are trying to figure out ways which will lead to self-sustaining vehicles.


The Microbial Goo

A potential food source for the astronauts has been discovered by the scientists which involves the consumption of microbes in order to change transform human waste into food. For the astronauts on deep space missions, human waste will possibly become a beneficial and worthwhile resource. For longer space flights, astronauts will need to recycle everything available, including their own faecal waste to make food. According to the research team of Pennsylvania State University, the breakdown of solid and liquid waste could possibly lead to the growth of food through the series of microbial reactions while instantaneously lessening the pathogen development. Recent researches have shown that combining microbes with human waste could lead to creating food for astronauts. The resulting substance will be a bit like Marmite or Vegemite mixed with a slur of microbial goo, as described by the Geosciences professor Christopher House.

As delivered by House, “Each component is quite fast and robust and breaks down waste quickly”, that makes it potential for the longer deep space flights in future as it is faster than growing tomatoes or potatoes.



transforming-astronaut-fecal-waste-into-fuel-for-edible-bacteria

A fully integrated unit is still required by the researchers so that they no longer need to test various components in isolation. A remarkable development for deep space travel would be if someone without the use of hydroponics or artificial light, successfully optimizes the system in order to get 85% Carbon and Nitrogen from the waste into protein.

Taking tons of drinkable water to International Space station (ISS) is quite inefficient and extravagant, therefore in 2009 NASA astronauts started to recycle urine by the help Urine Processor Assembly. Through this process they astronauts were able to reclaim 75% of water from urine. Subsequently, considering to convert the solid waste into something edible is not an outrageous plan.

Scientists are using industrial standard artificial faecal waste for this unappetizing yet workable new method for preparing astronaut food by pumping it into a system of cylinders about 1.22 meters that work as microbial reactors. The cylindrical system allows the selected microbes to break down the human waste through anaerobic digestion, a method does not consume oxygen. Microbes extract components from the faecal waste which then goes into microbial farm and there these components are used as a food for a different kind of bacteria which are edible for the humans. Scientists are already consuming methane from reprocessed and recycled urine and faecal waste to culture Methylococcus capsulatus, which is used as animal food.


The researchers grew Methylococcus capsulatus that was 52 percent protein and 36 percent fats

The researchers grew Methylococcus capsulatus that was 52 percent protein and 36 percent fats

Systems to inhibit the growth of harmful and dangerous microbes were also designed and tested in order to prevent their growth among the edible bacteria. A microbe farm was created with a pH of 11 on the 14-point scale. Halmonas desiderata, a bacterium with 15% protein content and 7 % fat content was successfully grown in this environment. The scientists say it is still not clear either these low levels might cause the bacteria to become unsuitable for food. The temperature of the microbe farm was raised in another experiment, 70 degrees C (158 degrees Fahrenheit) was given to inhibit the growth of pathogens. Now, the heat-tolerant bacterium Thermus aquaticus grew successfully with 61% protein and 16% fat. Being faster than the already existing waste treatment which takes several days, this process converts 49-59% solid in 13 hours, making it potential for future longer space flights.

House said, “We also explored dramatic changes in the amount of waste that was produced, such as, if spacecraft has larger load than usual, and system manages to accommodate that well enough”. The inspiration of the team compact design was from fish aquariums, which uses a fixed film filter for the treatment of fish waste. Specially designed bacteria covered film containing high surface area are used in these filters. Microbes present on the surface of the material consume solid waste converting it into fatty acids. Later on, by a different set of microbes on the exact surface, the fatty acids are converted into methane gas.

Conclusion

The existing waste management treatment takes several days; however, this method is much faster as in 13 hours, 49 to 59% of solid was removed during their test. This study is still in its initial stages. Various components in isolation were explored and it is not a fully integrated system. The reason why the system is not in application yet.

Comments

Peggy Woods from Houston, Texas on January 04, 2021:

What a fascinating subject! It is interesting to know that some food for animals is already being produced in this manner. Space exploration is bringing about much in the way of innovation.

John Hansen from Queensland Australia on January 03, 2021:

This is a very interesting article and recycling fecal waste to produce an edible bacteria would be a big breakthrough in regard to astronauts and space stations etc.

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