Using human waste in space to create something useful for astronauts is not a new idea. For years now scientists have been trying to find innovative ways to make use of human wastes in space to reduce the amount of supplies needed by astronauts during space missions. Astronauts on board the International Space Station are already using their sweat and pee to produce drinkable water. A new research now wants to extend the idea and is trying to create nutritional supplements and plastics using human urine.

This research, being carried out at Clemson University, relies on some specific types of yeast that uses urea (in urine) and carbon dioxide to produce polyester polymers.

These polymers can then be used to create different plastic products in space with the help of a 3-D printer. According to researchers, other strains of the yeast can even produce omega-3 fatty acid. These fatty acids are used as nutritional supplements to maintain health of the eyes, brain and heart.

Making vitamins or medicine in space

Dr. Mark Blenner, the lead researcher of the study, is specifically exploring the possibility of making vitamins or medicine in space. According to Blenner, medicine and vitamins degrade over time, and this is a big issue related to deep space missions as it not possible to send supplies quickly to astronauts in space. Capabilities of making such vitamins or specific meds in space would be quite handy

In this study, Blenner and his team focused on yeast species Yarrowia lipolytica and found that this yeast likes eating pure urea (found in urine).

Further tests revealed that yeast grows better in human urine and is able to tolerate “other stuff” in the human urine well. Blenner then used photosynthetic cyanobacteria as a “middleman” in the experiment and the yeast was able to produce fatty acids and plastics by consuming urea and carbon dioxide. Blenner says yeast strains currently used in the experiment can produce only small amounts of nutrients or fatty acids, but scientists are doing further research to increase the output.

Other applications

According to Blenner, this research demonstrates that it is possible to produce essential products in space using things that are already there. The project is expected to lessen—to some extent—astronauts’ dependency on supplies from Earth. Researchers are also exploring other applications of this research, especially in human nutrition and fish farming.

The detailed findings of the research were presented on Tuesday during the annual meeting of the American Chemical Society in Washington, D.C.