Urine for Some Plastic Innovation

At last, the world’s scientists have developed a way for humans to turn their liquid excrement into beach balls and lawn furniture.

Thanks to a side experiment exploring how space travellers might most efficiently survive a mission to Mars, researchers have uncovered an extraordinary ancillary use for urine: transforming it into plastic.

Let’s face it, there’s not a lot of room aboard the spacecraft for the 2024 Mars One mission. The intrepid souls who consign themselves to a years-long foray into the Red Planet’s swirling unknown, then, need to leave their back scratchers and Tupperware behind. That means making smart use of all the stuff they do bring on board, and figuring out clever ways to reuse and recycle it once its original application is spent.

Enter astronaut urine, and the miracle it has to bestow on cramped but scientifically sophisticated space travel.

The newly developed system relies on specific strains of yeast—yarrowia lipolytica—that use urea in urine and carbon dioxide from astronauts’ exhaled breath to produce polyester polymers. These polymers can be used in a 3-D printer to generate new plastic parts which can then be applied to the manufacture of tools required in outer space.

Oh, and if polymers weren’t impressive enough for urine in its repurposed form, scientists have also discovered that the waste product can be made into a valuable nutritional supplement (the yeast strain also produces omega-3 fatty acids, which contribute to heart, eye and brain health).

Scientists presented their results recently at the American Chemical Society’s National Meeting & Exposition. The public bathrooms at the event were exempt from the experiment.

 

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