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A Bio4Energy scientist at Umeå University (UmU) has won funds for conducting research that will feed into a Trash to Gas initiative started in 2012 by the U.S. National Aeronautics and Space Administration, and which will be stepped up in connection with the preparations of NASA astronauts' first-ever manned trip to the planet Mars in the 2030s. The trip to outer space is longer and further from Earth than any of NASA's previous manned trips and implies new challenges when it comes to handling and disposal of waste such as used garments and towels, spent food packaging, human waste and paper products. Notably, whatever is leftover cannot be smelly, nor bulky and, ideally, should be recycled for re-use.

Researchers at NASA's Kennedy Space Center have built a prototype reactor
designed to make something useful from the trash astronauts accumulate in space.
The device incinerates garbage to produce methane, oxygen and water--which can
be used for rocket fuel, breathing air and for life support. Original video clip and
report by George Diller posted on Youtube, 20 March 2013.

A PI on the R&D platform Bio4Energy Environment and Nutrient Recycling, UmU associate professor This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.will contribute to Trash to Gas with results from her new project Thermal Treatment of Waste Materials into Carbon Materials and Gaseous Fuels. Vinnova, Sweden's innovation agency, supports the latter project which, in turn, is part of the European Union grant scheme Marie Curie Academy Outgoing Researcher.

More specifically, Jansson will be bringing in two types of technology which have yet to be tested within the Trash to Gas project’s method development part. One is a biomass pre-treatment technology by roasting (torrefaction) which has been shown to facilitate the conversion of the woody starting materials into gaseous or liquid biofuels. Jansson task is to gauge whether, in a similar way, torrefaction can aide the conversion to gas or carbon of mixed waste generated during a space trip. The second technology is microwave-assisted pyrolysis. Both methods rely on high-temperature treatment and their use is likely to be suitable for making the starting materials more amenable to conversion into gas or carbon which, in turn, can be re-used during the space trip.

For six of the 12 project months, Jansson will be based either at the NASA’s Kennedy Space Center, located on the Atlantic coast line, or at the University of Central Florida in Orlando, U.S.A. As part of the project, Jansson will also facilitate an exchange with a company called Swedish Space Corporation to assess the performance of the technologies in the absence of gravity.

According to a press release from Umeå University, the need for the type of advanced waste treatment technology that is being investigated in Trash to Gas has previously been limited on journeys into space because these were shorter than that to Mars, or were performed relatively close to Earth. On such trips waste generated by the astronauts could simply be put in sealable container and made to self-combust at the re-entry into the Earth’s atmosphere. However, on the very long trip to outer space waste must not only be disposed of, but ideally also turned into a resource. 

“Finding good ways to re-use these types of complex starting materials is a great challenge. Most small-scale thermal processes are run on more homogeneous materials and typically just one type of material. In this case, the total amount of waste is a mixture of different types of waste”, Jansson said.

Below is an audio clip from an interview in Swedish by Vetenskapsradion with Stina Jansson, aired on the P1 station of Swedish public radio, Sveriges Radio, 11 January 2017. Published with permission.

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