It might sound like a fairly preposterous idea, but scientists believe that astronauts may one day be able to turn their pee into plastic.
According to Space.com, the new study led by Clemson University’s Mark Blenner suggests that astronauts could theoretically create their own tools out of their urine, with certain microbes working as active agents, and the end product serving as materials for 3D printers. In addition, this could even be a way for humans to “extend (their) footprint” outside of the planet and into the solar system.
“If astronauts are going to make journeys that span several years, we’ll need to find a way to reuse and recycle everything they bring with them,” Blenner explained in a statement quoted by Space.com.
“Atom economy will become really important.”
A report from Fox News suggests that the potential ability to turn pee into plastic will be most useful for astronauts taking part in NASA’s planned Mars missions. As Blenner himself had suggested, astronauts could easily lose a tool or two during a spacewalk, but with the technology he and his team are working on, such tools can be replaced once an astronaut converts their urine and exhaled carbon dioxide into polyesters for tool making and other nutrients.
— #3DPrintingZone (@3DPrintingZone) August 26, 2017
Before anyone can think of turning pee into plastic in space, however, everything must start with the aforementioned active agent, a yeast called Yarrowia lipolytica. Blenner and his colleagues are looking into this yeast’s ability to recycle, as it gathers the nitrogen required for recycling from the urea in untreated urine. It can also gather carbon from carbon dioxide, presumably from the air exhaled by astronauts or from the CO2-rich Martian atmosphere, though one interesting thing to take note is that the yeast needs algae in order for the carbon in CO2 to be recycled.
The “pee into plastic” experiment hopes to convert astronaut urine into polyester and nutrients, as noted above, but how exactly can this be done?
As explained in the Space.com report, one strain of Y. lipolytica was genetically engineered for the purpose of creating polyester, which can be used as “feedstock” for 3D printers. NASA officials believe such instruments will be very helpful during crewed Mars missions, or missions to other relatively far away parts of the universe. As for the nutrients, another strain of the yeast is capable of generating omega-3 fatty acids, which contribute to brain, eye, and heart health.
Although the technology sounds exciting, if a bit gross, Blenner stressed in an email to Fox News that everything is still “very early stage.” He noted that the pee-into-plastic part of his team’s research still needs a lot of improvement before it becomes ready. And while he added that the omega-3 production aspect of the study has resulted in “moderately good yields” so far, Blenner warned that it isn’t even sure if the microorganisms will play nice when in a space environment, especially if they’re genetically engineered.
[Featured Image by Vadim Sadovski/Shutterstock]