Scientists are Attempting to Recycle Astronaut Urine Into Plastic

Tuesday, 22 August 2017 - 7:24PM
Space
Weird Science
Tuesday, 22 August 2017 - 7:24PM
Scientists are Attempting to Recycle Astronaut Urine Into Plastic
NASA
Space flight is a difficult business. On the one hand, a lot of tools and resources are needed for a successful mission that have to be physically shot up in a rocket to get where they need to go.

Similarly, while humans are up there, we're going to end up creating waste that needs to be disposed of somehow. Some bright scientists at Clemson University have come up with a potential solution to make things easier: why not transform astronauts' waste into plastic that can be fed into a 3D printer?

No, seriously, the method involves converting astronauts' urine and sweat into moldable plastics. And if all goes well, it might just work.

Recycling urine in space is nothing new - all astronauts on the American side of the International Space Station are constantly drinking their own filtered pee, because it's simply cheaper and easier to do so than to constantly have to figure out new water sources for thirsty spacefarers (the Russians, on the other hand, don't filter their pee, so Yanks are often eager to get their hands on bags of Russian waste that they can feed into their filter system for more delicious, slightly used water).

The theory behind the Clemson scientists' experiments argues that if the right enzyme, in this case Yarrowia Lipolytica, can be tinkered with on a genetic level, it might just be able to turn left over urea into something more useful. At present, the enzyme eats human waste and turns it into fats and oils, leading the scientists to wonder whether, with the right push, it could be convinced to create the essential Omega 3, an oil that astronauts at present have to get from supplements.



A little more work, though, and the researchers hope to make Yarrowia Lipolytica produce an easily accessible form of polystyrene, which can be used as raw material for 3D printers, which space travel is increasingly relying on as a neat alternative to having to send all tools straight up to space any time they're needed.

The only problem with this plan is that when Yarrowia Lipolytica currently produces polystyrene, it's stored as fat within the enzyme cells - getting it out is about as easy as getting the contents of a beer gut out of millions of tiny, microscopic alcoholics - getting them to stay still long enough for extraction is something of a pain.

If the scientists at Clemson can make this work, it would be a fantastic boon for space travel in general, as it would allow for a far more economic use of resources, and a way of getting the most out of every contribution the next generation of astronauts have to offer.

At the same time, it's hard not to get excited about the uses of this technology back on Terra Firma - the natural resources that are currently used to make plastic won't last forever, so if we have the potential to produce new materials out of human waste, we'll be able to better look after our planet's precious oil reserves.

If all of this research pans out, it might not be long before you're using a disposable knife and fork that used to be a puddle on a restroom floor. Science is amazing.
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