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Astronauts May Soon Transform Human Waste Into Food

The day when astronauts go on deep-space missions, human waste may end up being a valuable food resource — that’s right, transform human waste into food. A team of researchers have shown that it is possible to rapidly break down solid and liquid waste to grow food.

The idea is not new; astronauts aboard the International Space Station recycle a portion of water from urine; however, the process is energy intensive. The team of researchers is trying to address the challenges facing deep-space missions to Mars and beyond, which are likely take months or even years.

One such challenge is food. If they were to pack enough food from Earth, it would take up a large amount of room, increasing the size and fuel cost of the spacecraft. Growing food during the trip using hydroponics or other methods also has its challenges, as this would be energy and water intensive, and would take up a lot of valuable room.

The research team from Penn State has shown how it’s possible to rapidly break down solid and liquid waste to grow food with a series of microbial reactors, while simultaneously minimizing any pathogen growth. Christopher House, professor of geosciences, Penn State, said in a statement:

Using an artificial solid and liquid waste (commonly used in waste management tests), the team was able show that when select microbes came into contact with the waste, they were able to break it down using anaerobic digestion (a process similar to the way humans digest food).

The whole process done within a cylindrical system, which is four feet long by four inches in diameter, House went on to explain that:

The team discovered that during anaerobic digestion of human waste, methane was readily produced. This could then be used to grow a different microbe, Methylococcus capsulatus (used as animal feed today).

The M. capsulatus that they grew contained 52 percent protein and 36 percent fats, making it a potential source of nutrition for astronauts. The researchers believe the microbial growth could be used to produce a nutritious food for deep space flight.

When growing microbes in an enclosed humid space, pathogens become a concern, so the team tested ways to grow microbes in either an alkaline environment or in a high temperature environment. By raising the system’s pH to 11, they found that a strain of the bacteria Halomonas desiderata thrives. The bacteria were 15 percent protein and 7 percent fats.

At 158°F, a temperature that kills most pathogens, they managed to grow the edible Thermus aquaticus, which consisted of 61 percent protein and 16 percent fats. House went on to say:

The team’s system, which is not ready for application yet, removed 49 to 59 percent of solids in just 13 hours during their test. This is quite an achievement when you compare it to the several days it takes with existing waste management treatment. House explained that:

Currently, astronauts aboard the International Space Station eject their solid waste into the Earth’s atmosphere, where it burns up. A small portion of their urine is recycled; however, the process is energy intensive. House adds:

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Troy Oakes
Troy was born and raised in Australia and has always wanted to know why and how things work, which led him to his love for science. He is a professional photographer and enjoys taking pictures of Australia's beautiful landscapes. He is also a professional storm chaser where he currently lives in Hervey Bay, Australia.

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