New Uses For Astronaut Urine

Urophagia – the consumption of urine – was practiced long before it was ‘popularised’ by prime time survivalist Bear Grylls. We’ve consumed it for centuries for a range of health-related purposes. Now, thanks to research from Clemson University in South Carolina, it may well be a new part of an astronaut’s day to day life. Space travellers might soon find themselves eating nutrients and using plastics produced by yeast fed with their own liquids.

Less Waste. More Urine.

Urine is already recycled on board the International Space Station (in spite of resistance from a Russian contingent), but the Clemson researchers are upping the ante, suggesting that the urine, breath and even faeces of astronauts could be used to produce a variety of materials (consumable and not) for lengthy journeys.
“Astronauts will need to be able to produce nutrients and materials they need during Earth-independent long-term space travel,” said Mark Blenner, the project’s lead researcher. “They simply don’t have the space to transport all possible needs – and certain nutrients, drugs, and materials can degrade over the course of three-plus year mission.”

Matt Damon (in The Martian) fertilised crops with his own excrement. [Source: Fox]

3D Printing With Urine

Blenner is building on research which suggests yeast can be genetically modified to produce a number of different substances including omega-3 fatty acids and plastics, like polyesters. What’s more, the ISS already houses a 3D printer, so Blenner believes it’s no great leap that astronauts’ yeast might be used to print a range of tools and components on board. But they’re not there quite yet; as Blenner acknowledges, a 1,000 litre tank would currently be needed in order to make a simple plastic spanner.

Solid Science or ‘Rather Crappy’?

As plans are made for longer term missions to the moon or Mars, the importance of resupply grows greater. For this reason, other researchers are even looking into how human faeces might be used to produce organic material to speed up the yeast’s growth and production. David Cullen, of Cranfield University, sees it as one of a number of legitimate approaches to increase the level of recycling on space missions.
Not are all convinced of the efficiency of recycling excrement, however. President of the British Interplanetary Society, Mark Hempsell suggested that the yeast technology would likely take many years of development it would be suitably small to prove useful on a space mission: “I can’t help feeling in most cases it is a lot lighter just to carry the spares than a giant piece of machinery that produces a rather crappy piece of plastic that might not be the best for the tool in the first place.”

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