Pooped Out In Deep Space

Discussion in 'Current Events' started by Frohickey, May 20, 2004.

  1. Frohickey macrumors 6502a

    Feb 27, 2003
    Pooped Out In Deep Space

    On a two-year trip to Mars, according to one estimate, a crew of six humans will generate more than six tons of solid organic waste--much of it feces. So what do you do with all that?

    Right now, astronaut waste gets shipped back to Earth. But for long-term exploration, you'd want to recycle it, because it holds resources that astronauts will need. It will provide pure drinking water. It will provide fertilizer. And, with the help of a recently discovered microbe, it will also provide electricity.

    Like many bacteria, this one, a member of the Geobacteraceae family, feeds on, and can decompose, organic material. Geobacter microbes were first discovered in the muck of the Potomac River in 1987; they like to live in places where there's no oxygen and plenty of iron. They also have the unexpected ability to move electrons into metal. That means that under the right conditions, Geobacter microbes can both process waste and generate electricity.

    The "right conditions" might be found in a new type of fuel cell--a membrane microbial fuel cell. This device is currently being developed by a NASA-funded research team led by Dr. Bruce Rittmann, a professor at Northwestern University.

    All fuel cells generate electricity by producing and controlling a flow of electrons. Conventional cells, including ones used onboard the space shuttle and in some prototype automobiles, obtain the electrons for their electron flow by pulling them off of hydrogen atoms. In order to do that, these fuel cells must be given a constant supply of hydrogen.

    Microbial fuel cells obtain their electrons, instead, from organic waste. The bacteria at the heart of the device feed on the waste, and, as part of their digestive process, they pull electrons from the waste material. Geobacter microbes, as well as a few other types, can be coaxed to deliver these electrons directly to a fuel cell electrode, which conducts them into a circuit -- a wire, for example. As they flow through the circuit, they generate electricity.

    Microbial fuel cells are already being experimented with on Earth. For example, one prototype is being used at Pennsylvania State University to generate electricity as it purifies domestic wastewater.

    To make this idea practical for space travel, says Rittmann, you have to have "a very efficient, very compact configuration." The fuel cell can't take up much room. To meet this requirement, Rittmann is considering a fuel cell of tightly packed fibers, each one of which will be a fuel cell all by itself.

    Each fiber would consist of three layers, like three straws, one inside of another. Each layer corresponds to one of the layers of a fuel cell: the anode (outer), the electrolyte-membrane (middle), and the cathode (inner). A slurry of liquefied waste would be pumped past the outer layers where Geobacter microbes (or other similar bacteria) can grab electrons and move them to the anode, into the circuit, and then to the cathode.

    Before any such designs can be put into practice, however, Rittmann and his team must first decipher the exact mechanism by which the bacterium transfers electrons to the electrode. In laboratory tests so far, the transfer rate is too slow. "We need to know how we can make that faster," Rittmann says, "and so generate more power."

    He has a couple of ideas about what the holdup might be. "The electron actually has to move from the outer surface of the microbe to the electrode, and it could be that it's limited by physical contact." Even though the bacteria lives attached on the surface of the anode, only a tiny bit of each microbe actually touches the metal, and that may be hindering electron movement.

    Another factor is the voltage on the electrode. It has to be high enough to coax the microbes into giving up their electrons. "Microbes move electrons around in order to gain energy. In fact, they only move the electrons when they do gain energy," he explains. What's the best voltage? "That's one of the questions we're trying to answer."

    "Let's say, for example, that the total voltage difference between the fuel and the anode is 2 volts. Then the microorganisms, as they give up their electrons, might take 0.5 volts to sustain themselves, leaving 1.5 volts for doing work in the circuit. These are just made-up numbers," says Rittmann, "but they illustrate what we are trying to learn."

    The membrane microbial fuel cell is still in the early stages of its development. Yet, if the project succeeds, we may find these devices not only in space, but also in our own homes. After all, astronauts aren't the only ones that produce organic waste.

    "You have to treat the wastes anyway," points out Rittmann. "So why not make the process an energy gainer, instead of an energy loser? By producing electricity, microbial fuel cells would make the process of purifying waste streams much more economical."

    Moreover, he says, "they change our focus. Microbial fuel cells transform something we think of as undesirable into a resource."

    Waste? Maybe not....


    Hmm... I would not want to be the one to check to see if the fuel cell is at full capacity. :eek: :D :D
  2. King Cobra macrumors 603

    Mar 2, 2002
    Anybody remember the poop scene from Tommy Boy? Recall David Spade and Chris Farley from the poop scene, but instead think of them wearing astronaut suits slowly disecting away...that's no way to power a ship.
  3. NusuniAdmin macrumors 6502a


    Nov 19, 2003
    Whenevr you take a crap and pop it in a recycler, some little chinese boy might feed on the nutrients, and maybe an engine somewhere as well... lol
  4. wdlove macrumors P6


    Oct 20, 2002
    It's good to know that on long term space all waste will be reusable. That's something we need to use now to help with our energy crisis.
  5. Gymnut macrumors 68000


    Apr 18, 2003
    Well I'm glad someone gave some forethought regarding the accumulation of human waste over the course of a two year trip to Mars.
  6. Mr. Anderson Moderator emeritus

    Mr. Anderson

    Nov 1, 2001
    just the thought of recycling the waste at home seems a bit much....it would have to be very efficient for that to catch on. But what I want to know is what's left after the bacteria get finished with it?

  7. alxths macrumors 6502

    Apr 3, 2003
    Some cattle farmers are actually starting to use the waste from their herd to generate some extra income from the electricity that it provides.. it's a great thing for them nowadays, with all the mad cow scares.
  8. virividox macrumors 601


    Aug 19, 2003
    Manila - Nottingham - Philadelphia - Santa Barbar
    as long as im not in charge of that...im fine with it
  9. Mr. Anderson Moderator emeritus

    Mr. Anderson

    Nov 1, 2001
    If I had to be the sanitation engineer on a trip to Mars, fine by me. I'd still be going to Mars! :D

  10. Raid macrumors 68020


    Feb 18, 2003
    I can see the headlines now. "Energy crisis hits planet!! World encouraged to take Ex-lax!" :D

Share This Page