One Day, Astronauts Could Be Making Tools From Their Own Poop

If astronauts lose tools today it's not much of a problem, but if they did so further away from Earth, it could be serious. NASA

One person’s waste is another person’s gold. Nowhere could that be truer than in space, where every single atom is a valuable resource. In light of this, researchers have developed a way to make simple tools from astronaut poop.

Rather than simply squishing and molding the raw material into the desired shape, the team has come up with a slightly more agreeable solution. They have genetically engineered bacteria so that they can convert the fetid feces into useful plastics, which can then be fed into a 3D printer. From this, the astronauts could then theoretically print off tools they might be missing, or bits to fix their habitat.

“When you’re planning space missions, there’s no way you can predict everything you’ll need,” explained Mayi Arcellana-Panlilio, co-author of the latest study published on bioRixiv, to New Scientist. “The nice thing about this plastic is that it can be molded into whatever you want.”

The process would work by collecting the poop of astronauts in tanks, which would be seeded with a specially engineered strain of Escherichia coli. The bacteria has been designed to take the fatty acids from the feces, and convert them into plastic known as polyhydroxybutyrate. This can then be used like any other plastic in 3D printers. What remains of the stools wouldn’t go to waste either, but could potentially be used to create radiation shields, which would be very handy on Mars.

You’ll be glad to learn that it isn’t only poop that could be used to make tools. While astronaut pee is already recycled into drinking water on the International Space Station, another group of researchers has been investigating whether the golden liquid can be turned into other useful products.

By brewing the urine with yeast and photosynthetic cyanobacteria, and bubbling through the carbon dioxide that astronauts are breathing out, scientists can then engineer the microorganisms to produce a range of substances. One strain of yeast, for example, can make omega-3 fatty acids, crucial for the health of hearts, eyes, and brains. Another has been altered to make polyester polymers, which once again could be fed into a 3D printer to make tools.

Thinking about how to use every single resource available will be vital for future missions even further away from Earth. While it is true that the initial cost of shipping out specialized tanks and printers to somewhere like Mars might be quite high, over time this will be more than balanced out if the crews are making their own tools on site.  

[H/T: New Scientist]

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