The faecal frontier: miniaturising the biosphere and managing waste in deep space

Wildlife Preservation Society of Queensland
Publication Type:
Journal Article
Wildlife Australia, 2017, 54 (2), pp. 18 - 21 (5)
Issue Date:
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An experiment with lettuces was underway when we visited the pilot plant of the MELiSSA Project located within the Department of Chemical, Biological and Environmental Engineering at the Autonomous University of Barcelona. The pilot plant itself, although modelled on natural aquatic ecosystems such as ponds and lakes, appeared rather like a highly sophisticated, sterile tangle of machinery. The lettuces, their roots sunk in a hydroponic system circulating nutrient-enriched water, were positioned on a conveyor belt that slowly ferried them towards the end of the growth chamber as they matured. Stainless-steel tanks were connected by various tubes and pipes, their vital flows carefully monitored and reconditioned by computer. Although the lettuces were otherwise indistinguishable from gardenvariety salad greens, we knew these were no ordinary plants; their purpose was to convert carbon dioxide into oxygen and food. Their germination was staggered sequentially, their growth meticulously managed to help stabilise oxygen levels within the chamber and allow for harvesting over time. In another sealed chamber, photosynthesising algae converted light, water and carbon dioxide into oxygen and edible biomass (‘spirulina’). These were part of a complicated bioengineering project that could provide incredible outcomes for both space travel and waste management.
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