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Coffee Talk
Business Observer Wednesday, Nov. 11, 2020 1 year ago

USF professor, students work to develop technology NASA may use in space

The potential solution Daniel Yeh developed recovers fertilizer found in human waste.

Whatever happens, it won’t be a waste.

That's the stance at the University of South Florida, which has created a technology system —being tested by NASA — to convert human waste into fertilizer and water. It could have big benefits, including helping astronauts grow fresh food in space. 

Daniel Yeh, a USF civil and environmental engineering professor and the principal investigator on the project, tells Coffee Talk as NASA aims to travel further from the Earth, including to the moon or Mars, supplying chemicals to recycle water or provide fertilizer for food production becomes more challenging.

Courtesy. Daniel Yeh, University of South Florida civil and environmental engineering professor, is the principal investigator on a project to develop technology NASA could use to convert human waste into fertilizer and water.

“If you really want to sustain human presence on a place like Mars, you have to be able to grow food,” says Yeh. “The thing is, you can’t grow food without fertilizer, and to ship fertilizer becomes expensive. All of this points to a next-generation system.”

The potential solution Yeh developed recovers fertilizer found in human waste. “Waste is only waste if we let it be waste,” he says. “We just need to look at it differently.”

The machine he invented, in conjunction with some USF students, including undergrads, graduate students and postdoc researchers, is called the Organic Processor Assembly. It’s about the size of a refrigerator.

Yeh received more than $340,000 in grant funding from NASA, and the agency is currently evaluating it at Kennedy Space Center. Its effectiveness under simulated space conditions, including zero gravity, is being tested.

Yeh’s work for NASA has its roots in another project. “We’ve done similar things already on Earth — the predecessor to this project,” he says. “We’re working with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to develop next-generation sanitation solutions for other parts of world that may not have the same sewer network we have in U.S.” In total, he’s worked on waste treatment and recycling for 18 years.

Although NASA is still evaluating the technology and Yeh and his team are still perfecting it, he has high hopes. “There’s going to be a lunar base built on the moon,” he says. “We’re angling to get the Organic Processor Assembly to be the waste treatment technology that NASA would consider using there.”

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