Thursday, July 9, 2009

Profiles In Urine

Image credit: NASA TV

Don't you just love the ability of computers to search for similar information to what you're reading at the moment?

Efrique led me to this article about an Ohio University project to extract hydrogen from urine:

Gerardine Botte, an Ohio University professor, sees the liquid as a solution thanks to the particular composition of its major component, urea. Its make-up, a 2-to-1 ratio of hydrogen and nitrogen, is convenient because hydrogen can be extracted from nitrogen using much less electricity than that needed to, say, pull apart hydrogen and oxygen. (It’s a matter of 0.037 Volts versus 1.23 Volts, if you really need to know.)

The Power Of Pee

I can't wait for the usual know-nothings to start railing against this use of government funds.

Then, I noticed in the "Related articles" column, and in it was this gem:

There's nothing like washing down some freeze-dried space grub with a gulp of what you and your crewmates excreted just days prior. NASA announced yesterday that the recently installed urine and sweat recycling system on the International Space Station (ISS) has begun to churn out good, potable water, fit for consumption in orbit and terrestrially (though don't expect it to compete with Evian). To celebrate, ISS crewmembers and NASA folk on Earth raised a toast Wednesday and took a drink.

Space Station Astronauts Toast ISS Kitchen Upgrades With Their Own Urine

Far from being a waste of money, these are great examples of using technology to solve problems. Spaceflight, and settling on worlds that lack water, will require that we be able to recycle all the water astronauts excrete. In a world that is running out of drinkable water, this technology may have applications closer to home someday.

The energy cost of separating hydrogen from other elements we normally find it combined with is one of the principle drawbacks to hydrogen power. Whether it is obtained from biomass or growing crops or from splitting water molecules, that cost is so high that hydrogen may not be a viable fuel, even though it is the most plentiful element in the universe. Extracting it from a readily available source could be a breakthrough.

The net effect of research efforts like these could be that someday, we will use what is now a waste product that must be disposed of as a source of vitally important commodities.

So the next time someone asks, no doubt rhetorically, why we spend all this money on research into disgusting things like using urine in new ways, you can tell them it's because someday soon we'll need it.


Dana Hunter said...

That is the most awesome use of urine ever. If they manage to fuel engines off of this, road trips will never be the same...

Cujo359 said...

That's especially true if they ever make a converter that will fit in a trunk.

Efrique said...

The yuk factor and fooling yourself:

When people first hear about the fact that it is common in space missions to drink water extracted from recycled urine, people often respond with "Yuk".

Funnily enough, they never seem to have noticed the stuff that falls from the sky as rain must also (at least partly) consist of water that's recycled urine.

Indeed every pure, yummy glass has in it water molecules that passed through various sets of kidneys, some of them potentially many millions of years old.

You could well be drinking water molecules that were once in mammoth pee or sabre-tooth pee, or whatever. How cool is that?

Maybe I should look for time to write about people's tendency to delude themselves about these things.

Cujo359 said...

The main hazard, of course, is the potential for picking up harmful germs that way. That's clearly something that nature can take care of, given enough time and sunlight. If we can mimic that process inexpensively and quickly, we'll be able to move to other locations in the solar system, and make more efficient use of fresh water supplies here.

It will take a little time to get used to the idea, but I don't see any reason why recycled urine can't be just as clean as fresh mountain spring water.

I just hope someone else will be in charge of changing the filters...