NASA To UF: Improve Space Technology With Earth In Mind

October 18, 2000

GAINESVILLE, Fla. — NASA has a dual mission for University of Florida scientists and engineers: Come up with technologies that help astronauts survive extended stays in space — and offer environmental benefits here on Earth.

The space agency recently moved to give UF $2.5 million for a new center that will develop effective ways to recycle air, water and waste on extended space missions such as a manned mission to Mars. But that’s only half the picture: The center also must actively seek and promote a “terrestrial” commercial application for each new technology, such as removing pollutants from air or water. That contrasts with the traditional approach, which places the initial focus on the research with “technology transfer” following later.

“What’s unique about this center is it’s simultaneously dealing with two issues,” said John Warwick, professor and chairman of UF’s department of environmental engineering sciences, where the center will be based. “One is the technical needs of NASA to support extended human space flight. The second is to support development of technology that has a high commercial potential.”

NASA officials expect that it will be extremely difficult to regularly resupply astronauts on the extended missions anticipated in coming years, such as a prolonged visit to the Moon or the Mars mission. As a result, the agency is looking for technologies that can sustain life for months or years in a so-called “closed loop” system, where oxygen, water and other essentials are recycled and reused repeatedly.

“If you don’t have to resupply water and other consumables, and you can recycle, then that can save you mass and that saves you money,” said Katherine Daues, an administrator at NASA’s Advanced Life Support Program at Johnson Space Center in Houston.

Daues said the average person requires a minimum of 26,500 pounds of water, food and air — the vast bulk of the weight is water — to live for one year away from Earth. But every pound sent into space costs thousands of dollars and decreases vital room aboard the spacecraft. Although NASA has long used some recycling technologies, such as regenerative carbon dioxide systems, on its space missions, the agency hasn’t exploited the technology because the missions to date have been relatively short and close to home, Daues said.

Warwick said the UF center will focus its efforts in three areas: air revitalization, solid waste recovery and water recovery. The goals with all of the systems, he said, are to reduce size and weight and function on low power with a minimum of crew oversight. The systems also must be extremely reliable, he said. “This equipment has to be bulletproof,” he said. “It has to work as well on the last day of the mission as on the first day.”

Closed-loop technologies have great commercial potential, which the center will exploit as the technologies are developed, Warwick said. For example, more effective water recovery systems could prove useful for submarines, military ships and even commercial cruise lines, which face stiffer and stiffer regulations against discharging wastewater at sea.

NASA has provided $250,000 to UF to launch the center, which will receive five annual $500,000 grants starting in December. UF plans to use a chunk of the start-up money for two pilot research projects: One in air and water revitalization, and one in solid waste revitalization. Jean Andino, Tim Townsend and Ben Koopman, all faculty members in the department of environmental engineering sciences, are heading those projects.

Andino, who will work on the air and water revitalization project, hopes to use titania-coated magnetic particles to remove pollutants from air and water. The magnetic aspect of the particles is important, since it is intended to make them useful in the low-gravity environment of space, she said.

“On Earth, this technology could also be used for removing pollutants from the smokestacks of power plants, incinerators or other industrial sources,” she said.

The center’s academic partners are the University of Central Florida, North Carolina State University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. The commercial partners are AJT & Associates of Cape Canaveral; Bionetics of Newport News, Va.; Dynamac of Rockville, Md.; Eltron Research Inc. of Boulder, Colo.; Hamilton Sundstrand of Windsor Locks, Conn.; Honeywell of Torrance, Calif.; Multiplexed Plasma Technologies of St. Petersburg; Sigarca, Inc. of Gainesville; Tempest Environmental Systems, Inc. of Durham, N.C; and Wyle Laboratories of Houston.