Washington :NASA has awarded researchers a USD 200,000 grant to figure out how to recycle human waste into synthetic food that could sustain astronauts during extended space journeys, including mission to Mars.
Mark Blenner, a professor in Clemson University’s chemical and bioengineering department, is genetically engineering yeast to produce things that astronauts might need aboard a spaceship, using urine and breathed-out carbon dioxide as the building blocks to create useful onboard items.
“If you want to send people into space for a long period of time you can’t go down to the Home Depot to get screws, or the market to get food; it’s difficult, as space is at a premium,” said Blenner.
The US space agency wants to land humans on Mars by 2030, and it is investing in ideas like Blenner’s to figure out ways for astronauts to be more self-sufficient on long-term space missions, and recycle as much as they possibly can.
A particular strain of yeast can be genetically manipulated to create polymers, or plastics, used for 3D printing, as well as Omega 3s, which lower heart disease risk, and protect skin and hair, Blenner said.
Nitrogen is needed to grow the yeast, and it’s abundant in human urine. Yeast also feeds on lipids which certain algae can create out of carbon, ‘Quartz’ reported.
Assuming a system can be created to turn breath (which contains carbon dioxide) into lipids using algae, Blenner’s system would grow yeast that could take those lipids and nitrogen and turn them into plastics and Omega 3s.
NASA awarded Blenner the grant to turn this idea into a proof of concept over the next three years.
The agency is also funding research for other projects that would aid long-term space missions, including more efficient solar panels, better thermal protection for ships entering atmospheres.