Wednesday, July 17, 2024

Here’s how a small business plans to treat wastewater in space

The waste water treatment system has reached 95 percent feasibility. (Melanie Occhiuzzo/HNNDaily)
The wastewater treatment system has reached 95 percent feasibility. (Melanie Occhiuzzo/HNNDaily)

HAMPTON — Did you know that it costs about $83,000 to lift just one gallon of water to the International Space Station?

Water is a vital part of every day life and it’s even more important to those living in the international space station, according to Pancopia.

Pancopia is a private research and development and engineering company founded in 2014 by Bill Cumbie. It specializes in environmental and energy engineering.

Rachel Willinger, business manager at Pancopia, said each astronaut gets 3 gallons of water per day. With four astronauts that makes 12 gallons of water per day.

With the cost so high, which according to Pancopia’s website accounts for 92 percent of the costs to sustain operations in space, NASA Langley is trying to find a way for water to last longer once it’s up there.

NASA Langley’s partnership with Pancopia

Pancopia is engaged in a SBIR (Small Business Innovation Research) program contract with NASA Langley to develop a wastewater treatment system for use on the space station and other manned missions that will be capable of recycling 95 percent of wastewater into drinking water.

Willinger said as of right now NASA Langley has reported an 85 percent success rate of cleansing the water of excess nitrogen but with Pancopia they want to reach that 95 percent success rate.

During the first phase of the three-phase contract, Pancopia successfully reached 95 percent recycling of the wastewater, reaching that feasibility part of the contract, Willinger said.

It is in those second two phases that Pancopia must develop a prototype and make a wastewater treatment system that is user-friendly to the astronauts on the space station.

The lives of the astronauts on the space station are incredibly busy Willinger said, and the last thing they need to do is to learn a whole new treatment system.

This is why one of Pancopia’s goals is to make the system, which will be remotely monitored, easy to use and hands off for the astronauts.

In order for the treatment system to work, Pancopia has been developing methods to freeze-dry and rapidly reactivate organisms that will be part of the wastewater treatment system.

“You can’t get more hands-off than living organisms,” Willinger said.

Why create the system

If a system like this wasn’t created then there would be too much excess nitrogen in the astronauts’ bodies, Willinger said.

If a human being consumes too much nitrogen through drinking contaminated water they would lose the ability to correctly metabolize oxygen, said Holly Anne Matel, a process engineer at Pancopia with a background in wastewater engineering.

Willinger said the importance of the project lies in making a system that will allow the user to keep drinking and using the same water over and over again without worrying about absorbing too much nitrogen.

Applications from the project could be used for future missions to Mars where the sources of water are still a bit of a mystery, Willinger said.

Willinger said after getting that 95 percent feasibility and winning the rest of the contract, Pancopia is very excited to see where the technology will go.

They have contracted about $1.2 million with NASA for this project and hope to see the applications go beyond just the international space station.

To learn about Pancopia and its other projects, click here.

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