Queen's University

Researchers close to turning urine into water

 
2009-01-22

Queen’s University researchers are one step closer to turning human urine into drinking water.  Developed for use in space, this discovery could allow for longer missions and larger crews.

“Recycling human waste into drinking water is difficult,” says Michael Hrynyk, biotechnology graduate student and project leader. “Distillation techniques don’t work well without gravity, and other processes require huge amounts of energy. We’ve figured out a straightforward and compact way to make clean water.”

The new discovery could have implications for the NASA space program’s future Martian and lunar missions.

Mr. Hrynyk with undergraduates Kelsey Barton and Richard Wong, have produced a solution made of jack beans and alginate (a seaweed by-product) that filters urine to remove the compound urea. What’s left over is clean water.

He indicates that the method is not a 100 per cent efficient way of turning urine into safe drinking water, but rather neutralizing a single component in the urine stream.  Our still requires refining a device which will one day allow for safe drinking water to be produced.

“We’re not quite at the step where we can drink our own pee, but this is an important step,” adds Mr. Hrynyk.

Mr. Hrynyk successfully tested the process under simulated space conditions at the Mars Desert Research Station in Utah this month.

The station mimics what it would be like on Mars.

“The experience was gruelling but it was definitely what you would encounter if you were on Mars or the moon, and our process performed well,” says Mr. Hrynyk.

The researchers’ next step is to make the method last longer. “It starts well, and then declines,” says Mr. Hrynyk. “We’ll work to improve the process and go from there.”

The team was supervised by chemical engineering professor Ron Neufeld.

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