Poo rocket fuel can power deep space missions

27 Nov 2014

If current research proves accurate, our waste can soon end up firing out the back of future NASA spacecraft and even fuelling processes down here on Earth.

The less-than pleasant-sounding process was actually put forward by NASA to determine a way to better dispose of the waste created by astronauts as part of a future Moon base mission proposed by the space agency in 2006.

With plans to send a team to Earth’s satellite between 2019 and 2024, they had hoped to find a means of turning the waste generated on board craft that is usually released and burned up in the Earth’s atmosphere but for future long-term missions, it would be impractical to bring all the stored waste back to Earth.

Now, a team from the University of Florida (UF), led by Prof Pratap Pullammanappallil, is working on developing the ‘poo fuel’ with the help of NASA who have sent the team a packaged form of chemically produced human waste that also included simulated food waste, towels, wash cloths, clothing and packaging materials.

The key ingredient of the waste that Pullammanappallil and his team want to exploit is methane and found from their tests that with this amount of waste, their process could create up to 290 litres of methane per week.

According to the announcement from UF, The team’s results also led to the creation of an anaerobic digester process, which kills pathogens from human waste, and produces biogas which contains a mixture of methane and carbon dioxide by breaking down organic matter in waste.

This latter development could pave the way for Earth-bound applications of energy creation, specifically for heating, electricity generation or transportation.

Rocket on landing pad image via Shutterstock

Colm Gorey was a senior journalist with Silicon Republic