Astronaut Urine Could Become A Future Fuel For Space Travel
In space, no one can hear you scream. Which is probably a good job, because those poor souls on the International Space Station and other zero gravity environments are faced with a perpetual dilemma of what to do with human waste. When astronauts head to the microgravity environment of the ISS, they actually have to embark upon a special space toilet training course which helps them get to grips with the unique toilet systems they will soon be using for their extended stay in space. While the art of going to the bathroom in space is tricky, the art of getting rid of human waste is even trickier.
Throughout the history of human space exploration, a number of different methods have been employed to dispose of human feces. On the Russian Mir Space Station in the mid 80's, astronauts would jettison their fecal matter directly into space. However, after almost 15 years of doing so, engineers discovered that the space station's solar panels had been severely damaged by high speed urine attaching to them and freezing rapidly. These days, the International Space Station has a state of the art facility that converts astronaut urine into potable drinking water (see video above). As for solid waste, well, that gets packed up into special containers and sent out to burn up in Earth's atmosphere.
While this is an incredibly efficient way to operate, a team from the University of Puerto Rico believe they have found a way to make human urine an even more valuable commodity for long-term stints in space. With the help of NASA bioengineers, the international team recently published a paper that suggests a purifying technique called 'Forward Osmosis' could not only purify urine for drinking water, but also use it as a power source.
Led by the University of Puerto Rico's Edward Nicolau, the research team used forward osmosis to process urine and wastewater and remove potential contaminants such as urea. The team's unique Urea Bioreactor Electrochemical (UBE) successfully converted the urea into ammonia, a substance that was then transferred to a modified fuel cell with a high level of efficiency. These fuel cells have the potential to be used for a wide range of power-dependent tasks and could make future long-term space journeys more self-sufficient.
So pee-power could be utilized on future space journeys, but for now it would seem that the actual process of going to the bathroom in space will remain rather tricky. This process includes a vacuum-like funnel for liquid waste and a camera-guided sit down toilet for solid waste. Yes, I said 'camera-guided'. Kind of takes some of the glamour away from being an astronaut doesn't it?