Research funded by the European Space Agency into ways of feeding future astronauts on missions to Mars is about to find a very down-to-earth application - how to dispose of the sewage sludge left over after wastewater treatment.
The MELISSA (Micro-Ecological Life Support Alternative) project, which ESA is funding in companies and research institutes throughout Europe, is developing a system of recycling as much of the waste as possible produced by astronauts on long-duration space missions into food and other consumables. EPAS, a Belgian company participating in the project, is using some of the research results to devise methods of substantially reducing the amount of solid material left over after sewage treatment on Earth.
Presently-available technologies reduce the amount of solid waste left in effluent such as pig waste, vegetable waste or sewage by 40-60% at most, according to Dries Demey from EPAS. In space, it`s essential to find ways of using the remainder. On Earth, it`s not essential, but would be highly desirable. At present, this undigested fraction is disposed of in landfill sites or, when suitable, by spreading on agricultural land. "In Flanders, there`s not a lot of land and the tax on sludge disposal at landfill sites is getting higher," says Demey.
Whether in space or on Earth, waste initially enters a fermentation chamber where carefully chosen bacteria break down the solids. As this process is unable to biodegrade recalcitrant fractions, EPAS began investigating additional treatments to reduce the waste further.
Christophe Lasseur | alphagalileo
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