Human waste can be used as rocket propellant by future Mars astronauts

On Mars, every last resource counts.
Chris Young

For future Mars astronauts, no wastewater must go to waste. 

A team from Spanish technological center Tekniker is developing a new sustainable life support mechanisms, required to help astronauts live on Mars for long periods.

The 'photoelectrochemical' system converts astronaut wastewater and carbon dioxide from Mars' atmosphere into fuel using sunlight. 

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Wastewater combined with CO2 makes rocket propellant

The project was initiated by ESA's Open Space Innovation Platform, which is helping to develop promising new innovations for space. It joins a host of other projects developed to help future astronauts maintain an off-world presence.

"We aim to make the first reactor to produce space propellant on Mars using the planet's air, which is 95 percent carbon dioxide," Borja Pozo from Tekniker explained in a post on ESA's website. "The reactor will be powered by sunlight, and astronauts' greywater will be used to help in the production of the propellant."

The Tekniker system relies on high-efficiency catalytic materials that produce hydrocarbons from atmospheric carbon dioxide mixed with wastewater. The process also detoxifies the wastewater, meaning it can be used as a recycling method. 

"The outcome of this activity could provide ESA with valuable input on the production of propellant on Mars or to power remote sites like ground stations on Earth," said Jean-Christophe Berton, ESA technical officer for the project "It could also potentially provide input on how to decarbonize our own atmosphere."

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Astronaut urine and blood are used as building materials

It is one of many proposed systems to help Mars astronauts maximize their resources on Mars when they eventually reach the red planet. In a September interview with IE last year, Dr. Aled Roberts of the University of Manchester in the United Kingdom said that concrete bound using astronaut blood and urine could one day help to "solve a life-threatening emergency akin to the Apollo 13 disaster."

Roberts calculated that, with a crew of six astronauts, more than a half-ton of AstroCrete could be produced over two years on Mars, helping to build habitats and perform fixes to any broken parts. When it comes to surviving on Mars, humans will have to get creative. Though using human waste as a vital building component and a means to produce fuel might not show the prettiest side of space exploration, it could be vital to establishing future human bases that allow us to extend civilization beyond Earth.

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