Focus-Science and Technology - - LEAVING EARTH -

Sci­en­tists at Penn State Univer­sity have de­vel­oped a novel way of mak­ing food, which would save us hav­ing to lug all of our food with us into space. Yes­ter­day’s hu­man waste is trans­formed into to­mor­row’s lunch.

Urine is al­ready re­cy­cled into drink­able wa­ter on the ISS, but fae­ces are sent away in a cargo ves­sel to burn up in Earth’s at­mos­phere. Dr Lisa Stein­berg, who worked at Penn State be­fore be­com­ing a school sci­ence tech­ni­cian, saw this as a wasted op­por­tu­nity, and de­vel­oped a sys­tem to re­use all of our bod­ily out­go­ings.

“The sys­tem is com­posed of two re­ac­tors,” she says. “The first takes urine and fae­ces and con­verts part of the car­bon [in the waste] into meth­ane, which is fed to a sec­ond re­ac­tor grow­ing a meth­ane-con­sum­ing bac­te­rial biomass.” The re­sult is a high-protein, high-fat food sup­ple­ment. Stein­berg points out that the food can be grown within a few days – much quicker than plant-based protein sources such as soy­beans. How­ever, she cau­tions that it “would likely com­ple­ment, not re­place, veg­etable mat­ter in an as­tro­naut’s diet.”

Is it safe? “[The re­ac­tors] only trans­fer gaseous prod­ucts, which can be eas­ily fil­tered to re­move pathogens,” she says. “Safety was an im­por­tant pri­or­ity.” As for the taste, Stein­berg’s team weren’t able to sam­ple the food due to lab pro­to­col, but the tex­ture has been de­scribed as sim­i­lar to Mar­mite. Whether as­tro­nauts can be con­vinced to eat it is an­other mat­ter.

One of the In­ter­na­tional Space Sta­tion’s two toi­lets

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