The final frontier for the circular economy? NASA awards grant for poo-to-food research project
How will astronauts feed themselves in the months and years it will take to reach Mars and, perhaps one day, the outer reaches of the galaxy? It is one of the biggest challenges facing NASA's research into manned voyages and now researchers think they might have found an extremely resource-efficient, if slightly off-putting, solution. Why not create the ultimate "closed loop" system and turn poo into food?
NASA announced late last week it has awarded a grant worth up to $200,000 a year to a US university project which aims to create a closed-loop system that could turn human waste into food, dietary supplements, or other useful materials for use during long-term space travel.
The initiative is one of eight university-led projects selected last week as part of NASA's Early Career Faculty programme.
The project, entitled Synthetic Biology for Recycling Human Waste into Food, Nutraceuticals, and Materials: Closing the Loop for Long-Term Space Travel, is being led by Mark Blenner of Clemson University in South Carolina and will receive funding from a $1.6m programme designed to further research into early-stage technologies for America's space programme.
Other projects to be awarded funding include research into the development of solar cells capable of generating power at very high temperatures, work to engineer bacteria to produce lightweight materials on-site at distant destinations, and modelling of thermal protection systems for entry into new atmospheres.
Each project will be awarded about $200,000 a year for a maximum of three years, as NASA seeks to bridge the gap between high-level academic research and viable space technologies.
Steve Jurczyk, associate administrator for NASA's Space Technology Mission Directorate, said the projects will provide "fuel for NASA's innovation engine".
"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," he said.
The low-carbon economy stands to benefit from much of the research funding being ploughed into NASA's space exploration programmes, as major advances in solar power, energy storage and closed loop resource models are seen as crucial to the agency's efforts to complete a manned mission to a passing asteroid and then undertake a mission to Mars in the 2030s.