Waste is No Longer a Waste

In January a research team at Penn State discovered a possibility to break down waste in order to grow food while also minimizing pathogen growth. This is done by using a series of microbial reactors which will be very valuable for astronauts during their missions. Christopher House, a geoscience professor at Penn State said, “it’s a little strange, but the concept would be a little bit like Marmite or Vegemite where you’re eating a smear of ‘microbial goo,” when asked about how the food would look.

Because the travel time for deep-space missions to Mars could take as long as years, the research team had to keep this in mind while conducting their experiments. This would mean that the amount of food brought on the trip would drastically increase the cost of the mission, making the idea of converting waste into food a very valuable concept. Researchers began testing this idea by using an artificial solid and liquid waste used in waste management tests and created a cylindrical system where select microbes come into contact with the waste. The microbes used anaerobic digestion, similar to how humans digest food, in order to break down the waste.The waste product, methane, could be used to grow Methylococcus capsulatus, a microbe used as animal feed. Since it was 52% protein and 36% fats, it is a potential source of nutrition for astronauts.

In addition to this discovery, the team also created different situations as to how much waste was produced and how effective the methane production in each scenario would be. The team found out that the system adapted well to these changes. Hopefully, this system will become efficient enough to one day be used in deep-space travel.