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Study aims to produce fuel from astronauts’ wastewater

For long-term missions to Mars, astronauts will need to find ways to produce vital supplies such as oxygen, water, and fuel on site, since it would be far too expensive to bring them from Earth. A research team from the Spanish technological center Tekniker is currently working in collaboration with the European Space Agency (ESA) on an innovative project that attempts to use sunlight to produce fuel from astronauts’ wastewater.

“We aim to make the first reactor to produce space propellant on Mars using the planet’s air, which is 95 percent carbon dioxide. The reactor will be powered by sunlight, and astronauts’ greywater will be used to help in the production of the propellant,” explained Borja Pozo Larrocha, a Telecommunication engineer at Tekniker.

By relying on high-efficiency catalytic materials, this photoelectrochemical (PEC) system will aim to produce hydrocarbons such as methane, as well as carbon monoxide or alcohols, from an innovative combination of atmospheric carbon dioxide and wastewater. According to the scientists, this process will also serve as a recycling method, by detoxifying the wastewater through the oxidation of its organic content.

“Bringing all these concepts and technologies together to create an efficient and operational system is a challenge, but thanks to this project Europe will have a unique system to provide other space agencies and companies, as well as reduce its dependence on technology from other space agencies,” said Dr. Pozo Larrocha.

“The outcome of this activity could provide ESA with valuable input on the production of propellant on Mars or to power remote sites like ground stations on Earth. It could also potentially provide input on how to decarbonize our own atmosphere,” added Jean-Christophe Berton, the ESA technical officer for the project.

For instance, this technology could also be applied in order to reduce carbon dioxide emissions in a variety of land-based industries and sectors, thus potentially contributing to climate change mitigation. In addition, it could be employed to develop similar new products which reuse wastewater produced by companies or personal means of transportation such as motorhomes or boats.

A description of the project can be found here.

By Andrei Ionescu, Staff Writer

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