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NASA’s Patents on Water Decontamination

Published on 17 March 2021 at 13:50

It is simply impossible for you to have never heard of NASA. Since 1958, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration has been dealing with U.S. space programs, aeronautics and space research. 

 

You might know about its world-changing space exploration programs. Though, I doubt you realise it also deals with matters that are much more practical but not any less life changing, like water decontamination. 

 

In fact, NASA has come up with a patent on January 26th 2016, filed back in November 26th 2013, concerning a Microwave-Based Water Decontamination System. 

 

This is far from being the first patent NASA has come up with concerning water decontamination. So then naturally one wonders: what is the problem with water in space?

 

Bacteria are the issue. We are so used to our beloved earth and its gravity, that we often forget things are way different in outer space. In microgravity, typically when astronauts are on missions, bacterial contamination of water systems is a real problem for NASA. Indeed, biofilms can clog and interfere with water systems and as a result, astronauts are exposed to bacterial ingestion, which is a health hazard. 

 

For this reason, a microwave-based technology was developed by NASA innovators to eradicate bacteria from potable water generating systems. This mainly concerns surfaces of equipment functioning through cooling loops and heat exchangers. 

 

Originally, this technology was developed to face challenges on the ISS, the International Space Station. The relative patent identifies the “field” to which it applies, so more generally the technical problem encountered in the prior art, what the present scientific knowledge hasn’t allowed to provide a solution for. Here, the innovative step would be to get rid of chemical additives to filter water. 

 

Indeed, the other water purification methods onboard the ISS used hazardous chemicals and required consumable products to be transported from Earth to the ISS. A new method, avoiding this health hazard was thus patented. 

 

Testing identified a specific microwave frequency band and exposure times at which bacteria and biofilm get killed. Indeed, experiments have shown exposing static water to microwave energy for seconds can kill waterborne bacteria within a filtration system. Only 30 seconds are necessary to decontaminate water according to a test using circulating water test bed. This method extends the life of water systems. Thus, said technology is meant to allow portable lightweight systems for use in remote locations as well as commercial space applications.

 

This innovation opens up possibilities applicable to various sectors beyond commercial space flight. There is an Ecological outset to this. Initially developed for astronauts, such potable water purification technology can be used on Earth especially since it is chemical free and portable. It uses a minimal amount of consumable products, is small and light. 

 

This can be useful in circumstances of Isolated geographical locations. It is also of interest for Hospital and research facilities. 

 

Clearly NASA has been working on water decontamination for a while. Another related patent, which I have found very interesting, is the “Contaminated Water Treatment”.

 

This is one is not very glamorous but is most certainly crucial to space travel. It was filed on September 28th, 2006 and published on February 2nd, 2010.

 

Yes, you have guessed it, this concerns converting urine into a drink. It is a two-step process actually. It works through a contaminant treatment pouch which will produce the ‘fortified drink’. This drink will not only hydrate the astronaut but also provide him or her with caloric requirements and electrolyte. It’s always nice to recycle! 

 

This process uses a variant of forward osmosis. No fear, an activated carbon pre-treatment removes most of the organic molecules of the initial liquid. The latter’s salinity is actually used in cooperation, synergistically, to provoke the precipitation of said organic molecules and allows for activated carbon to remove most of them. The inorganic contaminants are also removed through an osmotic bag (moving through a membrane). The saline content of the liquid will be adjusted to optimally process the contaminant.  

 

This relates to the life-support system of astronauts. This innovation reduces the mass required to keep humans alive in space, the mass of potable water at launch. As water accounts for about 80% of human’s mass daily intake, you can understand the practical interests in recycling drinking water. This happens to increase missions’ safety as well, as it allows for an emergency supply of drinking water when other sources are unavailable. 

 

It also reduces the volume of biological waste stored aboard a spacecraft, eliminates the need for urine dumping during space voyage, and most importantly: it is biologically safe! 


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