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Astronaut Poop Will Make for Great Martian Fuel. Just Add Water, CO2 and Light
Back in 2011, writer Andy Weir made his debut with The Martian. It was the story of a human astronaut stranded over on Mars after his larger crew decided to bail because of a massive sand storm. The book was followed in 2015 by a movie starring Matt Damon as the stranded Mark Watney, and it told pretty much the same story, only in moving pictures.

Astronaut Poop Will Make for Great Martian Fuel. Just Add Water, CO2 and Light

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Set in 2035, the story painted a pretty convincing image of how life on Mars will be for the first people to get there. More specifically, it showed the challenges Watney had to overcome when left all alone, especially when it comes to securing himself shelter and food.

We all know what the man did for food. At one point, he was forced to use his own poop (and his crewmates', nicely stored in bags and left behind) as fertilizer to grow potatoes, his main (and pretty much only) source of nutrients on the planet.

Sometime soon, perhaps in 2035 even, humans will send some of their best people to Mars. For real. And they too will face challenges, even if they’ll probably not be, in scala and drama, like those experienced by Watney.

One of the biggest challenges for any such mission is resource generation. From water and fuel to oxygen and food, what we’ll send along is all there is, and it will probably not be enough for a prolonged mission there.

That’s why a concept called in-situ resource utilization (ISRU) is getting increased traction. It basically means making use of and taking advantage of the resources present at the site of exploration to advance the mission’s goals. And there’s no other readily available such resource as the astronaut’s own waste.

By waste, we generally mean everything that results from a human’s action of, well, living. For the purposes of this piece, we don’t mean poop as is, like Watney’s. Today, we’re going to go a bit into an idea of a Spanish technological center called Tekniker, of turning astronaut broader waste into fuel.

By waste, Tekniker means wastewater (which is, basically, sewage, poop included) and greywater (meaning used water, only without fecal maters).

Back in January 2021, the team published a paper called “Photoelectrochemical system for CO2 reduction to produce fuels and sewage treatment.” It calls for the creation of a reactor meant to produce rocket fuel by making use of the massive amounts of carbon dioxide (CO2) present in the Martian atmosphere, the light coming from the Sun, and said astronaut waste.

The photoelectrochemical would pull in atmospheric CO2, but also waste- and greywater, and using “high-efficiency catalytic materials” would produce hydrocarbons (like, say methane), carbon monoxide, and alcohol, which could be used as fuel, but also for other purposes.

In the process of doing all this, the system would generate water as a bi-product, but not contaminated one, as it came in, but detoxified and ready to be re-used for whatever purposes once more.

At the time of writing, all of the above is just an idea on a piece of paper. The European Space Agency (ESA) is backing it through its Basic Activities program, and who knows, maybe soon it’ll become a real piece of hardware.

When and if it does, it could really open the doors to a glorious future of space exploration, when astronauts do not have to carry return fuel (or fuel to push their exploration even further) with them.

Why, we could even envision a future when the photoelectrochemical generator could be used not only to generate fuel here on Earth as well, but also to make the water we use clean again and put it back into our hands for use.

Editor's note: Gallery also shows Mars Dune Alpha habitat.

 
 
 
 
 

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