Environmental Protection

New Recovery System Increases Supply for Space Station

Astronauts on the International Space Station have to recapture every possible drop of water: evaporated from showers, shaving, tooth brushing and hand washing, plus perspiration and water vapor that collects within their space suits. They even transfer water from the fuel cells that provide electric power to the space shuttle.

Until now, however, NASA has not attempted to tap urine as a major potential source of water. That will soon change with the deployment of the new Water Recovery System. It departed Nov. 14 from the Kennedy Space Center on the Space Shuttle Endeavor.

The Water Recovery System, made possible in part by researchers at Michigan Technological University, can transform urine into water so pure it rivals the cleanest on Earth.

David Hand was the lead researcher on the project, which ran from 1993 to 1997 at Tech.

Under the new system, urine undergoes an initial distillation process and then joins the rest of the recovered fluids in the water processor. The processor filters out solids such as hair and lint and then sends the wastewater through a series of multifiltration beds, in which contaminants are removed through adsorption and ion exchange.

"What's left over in the water are a few non-adsorbing organics and solvents, like nail polish remover, and they go into a reactor that breaks them all down to carbon dioxide, water, and a few ions," said Hand, a professor of civil and environmental engineering. After a final check for microbes, the water is again clean and ready to drink.

NASA's Layne Carter, the Water Recovery System lead engineer at Marshall Spaceflight Center in Huntsville, Ala., credits Hand and the rest of the Tech research team with making the system as good as it is. "Without a doubt, if it hadn't been for their modeling effort, we never would have been able to redesign the multifiltration beds and achieve that level of efficiency," Carter said. "They did a fantastic job."

Using mathematical models, the Tech researchers helped improve the overall design of the multifiltration beds, The redesigned beds have 30 percent more capacity, which means that NASA doesn't have to send about 60 pounds of additional supplies up to the space station annually. "That may seem trivial, but it saves NASA about $600,000 each year," Carter said.

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