Space: the urinal frontier. With all of the fantastic inventions the space program has given us, the one that just might be the best is the Urea Bioreactor Electrochemical (UBE) system which turns urine into energy.
The science of “what goes in, must come out” for astronauts in space has the added challenge of determining what to do with what came out. Early space travelers brought it back while long-term residents on the Russian Mir Space Station jettisoned it, only to find those frozen fluids fractured solar panels. Astronauts on the International Space Station have the ability to remove potable water from urine but the rest is dumped into the atmosphere where it leaves a burning sensation.
The journal ACS Sustainable Chemistry & Engineering reports that a team of researchers from University of Puerto Rico working with NASA bioengineers used a technique called “forward osmosis” that separates urine into drinking water and urea. They then developed the two-step Urea Bioreactor Electrochemical (UBE) system. First, a urea bioreactor converts the urea (CO(NH2)2) into ammonia (NH3). The ammonia is then used to power a modified electrochemical fuel cell.
The UBE system removed 80 percent of the organic carbon and converted about 86% of the urea into ammonia. With human wastes, including urine, making up more than 50% of the total waste generated on a space mission, this system will not only create usable energy and drinkable water but also reduce space requirements and the danger of frozen projectiles.
Like many other NASA innovations, the Urea Bioreactor Electrochemical process has the potential to be used on Earth where waste disposal and treatment is always a problem and often a serious health issue.
From Tang to UBE, the ingestion and disposal of liquids in space may soon become one small step for man, one giant ‘leak’ for mankind.