Berkeley Lab works With NASA to use wheat to get to Mars
An astronaut aboard a spacecraft bound for Mars reaches into a container and grabs a handful of wheat straw: she's holding the key to a sustainable mission, waste that can be converted into fertilizer for the plants she eats and nitrogen for the air she breathes.
"To get to Mars, we need to develop a fully regenerative life-support system," says Ted Chang of DOE's Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, who led a research team from the Lab's Environmental Energy Technologies Division and NASA Ames Research Center.
A round trip to Mars will take three years, so the crew will have to grow food along the way. With food comes waste. The right incineration techniques can recover carbon dioxide, water, and minerals as well as pollutants like oxides of nitrogen and sulfur. Locked in these pollutants are nutrients that can help grow the next batch of plants, including fertilizers like ammonia, nitrates, and sulfates. Food to waste to nutrients, then back to fooda textbook sustainable system.
Stripping nutrients from pollutants uses routine technology on Earth, says Chang, but in space "you can't use expendable materials, gravity-dependent processes, or dangerous gases. So we focused on material that is available and can be continuously regenerated."
He didn't have to look far. Growing wheat, astronauts will have a steady supply of straw. Converting the straw to activated carbon, using a system developed by Chang and his collaborators, facilitates a cyclical flow of food, waste, and nutrients. A six-person crew eating 1.5 kilograms of wheat per day would yield over 200 kilograms of wheat-straw-derived activated carbon each yearenough to supply their needs."Waste has nutrients that shouldn't be thrown away, and in fact could help sustain a mission for its entire duration," says Chang. "Our method could allow astronauts to reuse valuable resources."
Submitted by DOE's
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