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🔬 Managing Water in a Closed Loop Environment

Talk Water - BlueTech Research Podcast Series

Photo by David Streit / Unsplash

Host: Michael Flynn
Category: 🔬 Research

Podcast’s Essential Bites:

[0:25] “The Kepler spacecraft, which is […] a planet finding telescope, gives us the ability to identify whether or not there are planets around other suns, and also give us the ability to determine whether those planets could potentially support life. And by support life, I mean, have water. Because what we've learned on earth is that water is the key essential element to having life. We've never found a living organism that can exist without water. It's a ubiquitous requirement for life. […] Right now we're up to several 100 planets that we've identified that are earth-like, meaning they have water on them.”

[2:54] “Mars is perhaps the most interesting of all those planets, because we send a lot of robotic spacecraft to Mars. So we have a very good understanding of what's going on on Mars. […] If you go to the north pole of Mars, and you dig down a few inches, you hit permafrost […] that proves that there is water, at least ice water on Mars. […] From the Mars Curiosity Rover, we have the ability to actually go to Mars and get rocks and and drill holes in the rocks and take some the powder from drilling the holes and analyze those and what we see pretty much ubiquitously in all soils on Mars is that there's a lot of water in those soils. […] So we have water, we have some evidence that that water may be liquid at certain times, and we have all the necessary elements to produce life, we do not know if life exists there or not.

[7:37] “If we're going to send humans to Mars, then we have another water problem. […] In the space business, all we care about are kilograms on the launch pad. We don't care how much those kilograms cost to make, we don't care what they are, we care about how much they weigh because they have to be launched into space. […] And water is your big mass. If you're going to send humans to Mars, water is going to be your number one cost to keep them alive for long periods of time.

[8:10] “So water recycling is very important to NASA. NASA has a long history of doing technology development in water recycling, dating back all the way back to 1962 […]. Our premier testbed right now is the International Space Station. If you have kids who want to be astronauts, they better be prepared to drink their own urine, because that's the only water we have on the International Space Station, recycled urine and also humidity condensate, we recycle those. […] This is a true toilet to tap water recycling system, meaning the pipe connected to the toilet is also connected to the faucet. And within three minutes if you go to the bathroom, […] you're going to drink your urine that's been recycled. We also do full carbon sequestration on the International Space Station. We do trace contaminant control, smell, odor control, it's all solar powered. It's an example of one of the most sustainable systems that the earth has ever produced. Aside from the environmental tragedy of launching it and getting it up there into outer space.”

[11:22] “On a Mars mission, the shortest duration we're talking about is about three years, takes one year to get there, you have to stay there for one year due to orbital mechanics and it takes another year to come back. So we need to have machines that are going to work for a minimum of three years. So […] if I can make a water recycling system that will work for three years with no maintenance, no human interaction, I can probably do five years, then. […] Could I make one that lasted for eighty years? The answer is, of course, yes. [We as humans] are all examples of water recycling systems that have lives of 50 to 80 years, typically. There is no small intestine maintenance that you have to go through in that 80 year period. Evolution has gone down a path to optimize your body to be a water recycling system.

[13:01] “So what we're really focusing on a lot are biomimetic technologies, trying to get away from the concept of these machines that break down all the time, and to go to more reliable technologies. We have a project right now where we actually are developing a small intestine based water recycling system. So a lot of our work is focused on forward osmosis, because that's how your small intestine works. […] And we also are doing a lot of work developing what are called living membranes […] [as well as]  proteins in membranes, because proteins have evolved over 3.8 billion years that life has been evolving to be the perfect structure for doing water separations. In addition to that we can regenerate proteins very easily, we can have genetically engineered bacteria that express proteins so we can make membranes that are sort of self regenerating membranes.”

[14:14] “This is all kind of basic research, you probably won't see it for 20 years, or something out in the future. But this is the technology that's going to sort of enable that colonization of Mars, where we have the opportunity to have a clean slate on how we do water recycling, and how we do solid waste treatment. We don't have to use those old paradigms, we can take a new approach into what we're doing because we're starting from scratch.”

[14:36] “We also do technology transfer. Taxpayers pay our costs and so we need to give back more than just just going to space we also need to solve terrestrial problems. […] An example [is] water recycling systems [in] office buildings. We've also done a lot of work in the food processing industries. They tend to have very difficult wastewater streams to develop. We've done some work with distillation systems and some work with forward osmosis systems in the food processing environments as well. We've done a little work in desalination. And our work […] has primarily been focused on developing desalination systems that don't have a negative environmental impact. So these are systems that don't produce a concentrated salt byproduct.”

Rating: 💧💧💧💧

🎙️ Full Episode: Apple | Spotify
🕰️ 17 min | 🗓️ 06/01/2021
✅ Time saved: 15 min

Additional Links:
NASA Ames Research Center