This summer, NASA awarded Clemson University researchers a three-year grant to study methods for transforming human waste into vitamins, plastics, and other useful materials for long-duration space flight. The South Carolina scientists will receive $200,000 per year for their research project, officially titled “Synthetic Biology for Recycling Human Waste into Food, Nutraceuticals, and Materials: Closing the Loop for Long-Term Space Travel.”
With the advanced alchemical process, the researchers say, they can use genetically engineered yeast to synthesize plastics from the waste. The plastics can then be used in 3D printing machines to make tools and parts on demand. NASA hopes the Clemson team can find new ways to recycle waste — including carbon dioxide from human breathing, urine, and feces — into new raw materials for future trips to Mars, and hopefully even further.
Down on earth, plastics from containers and packaging are the most recovered material in recycling plants (making up 39.9% of recycled waste), and are therefore widely available. But a long-term space flight exists in a “closed loop” ecosystem, where astronauts would be limited to only the materials they brought with them on the launch.
Mark Blenner, a chemical and bio-engineering professor at Clemson, will lead the project. He says the special yeast can use nitrogen in urine and lipids from algae to make both plastics and Omega 3s, vitamins that reduce heart disease risk and protect skin and hair tissues.
“Technology drives exploration, and investments in these technologies and technologists is essential to ensure NASA and the nation have the capabilities necessary to meet the challenges we will face as we journey to Mars,” said Steve Jurczyk, Associate Administrator for the Space Technology Mission Directorate at NASA.
The Clemson project is just one of eight NASA grants awarded to American researchers studying “innovative early stage technologies” that could solve the space agency’s “high priority” needs. Right now, NASA’s Curiosity rover is exploring the surface of Mars, and the agency hopes to land human explorers on the Red Planet in the decades to come.