We’ve all heard the phrase “reduce, reuse, and recycle” muttered under the breath of irate eco-warriors, but when it comes to space travel, that phrase could be the difference between visiting the moon and traveling to Mars. “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,” says Clemson University’s Mark A. Blenner—and that includes all of their bodily fluids.
While anyone who has seen The Martian knew that this was coming sooner or later, the work of Blenner’s team focuses on recycling astronaut’s human waste to help them make the trip to the Red Planet in the first place. Specifically, they are looking at ways to transform molecules from astronauts’ sweat and urine into plastics that can be used for tools aboard a spacecraft. NASA astronauts aboard the ISS already drink their recycled urine (“Better you than me,” President Donald Trump told astronaut Peggy Whitson recently). The new research points to a future in which, if an astronaut breaks a screw on the way to Mars, she could simply pee herself a new one.
The Clemson team is focusing on a strain of yeast called Yarrowia lipolytica, which requires both nitrogen and carbon to grow. However, astronauts come with their own supplies of both, with nitrogen coming from urine and carbon from exhaled breath. The team engineered the yeast strain to churn out polyester polymers, which could be used by a 3D printer to generate new plastic parts.
For now, the engineered yeast strains can produce only small amounts of polyesters, but the scientists are working on boosting output. Their work will be presented this week at the 254th National Meeting and Exposition of the American Chemical Society (ACS). Read more about it here, and watch this informative video on the “power of pee” below: