Researchers at the University of Florida have discovered a way to turn human waste into rocket fuel. The technique, published in the journal Advances in Space Research, utilizes a processing plant to be installed on the moon. If successful, the technology may soon pave the way for long-term space missions.
Conventionally, human waste is stored in containers that are loaded into capsules and burned up as they travel through Earth’s atmosphere. For short-term expeditions, this process is suitable. However, longer missions – such as NASA’s goal to establish an inhabitable unit on the moon – are a bit more problematic for several reasons.
First off, human waste that is generated during extended stays cannot be left on the moon. Bringing it back to Earth, however, is also infeasible since the load would significantly increase the overall weight of the spacecraft.
Seeing no obvious solution, NASA decided to approach Abhishek Dhoble and Pratap Pullammanappallil, two researchers from the University of Florida, to come up with a practical answer.
To assist with the procedure, NASA provided them with packages of chemically produced human waste, together with with towels, clothing and food waste that would be generated by astronauts. With these materials, the team then worked to develop an anaerobic digester process – a procedure that destroys pathogens in human waste before breaking down organic matter to produce a combination of methane and C02.
This technique could effectively yield up to 290 liters of methane for each crewmember every day for over 1 week – enough to fuel a flight back from the moon. Furthermore, the scientists believe that it is also possible to produce roughly 200 gallons of water a year by utilizing the same method. The water, although non-drinkable, can be converted into a breathable, back-up oxygen supply through the separation of hydrogen and oxygen bonds.
The journal also notes the real world applications for this technology. The fuel, for example, is usable in domains other than in space – potentially to generate electricity and heating on Earth.
Pullammanappallil states, “It could be used on campus or around town, or anywhere, to convert waste into fuel.”