NASA has been on a hunt for ways to maximize resources in space missions. Now, the U.S. space agency is funding researchers at Clemson University in South California to determine how to recycle human waste into food.
The aim is to find a means that would help sustain astronauts on deeper space missions including the planned journey to planet Mars.
In a statement, NASA said that the researchers will receive $200,000 annually for up to three years to find out how to turn human excrement into food as well as other usable products such as plastics and vitamins, which could be crucial for astronauts during long travels through outer space.
NASA said that the projects could have an important impact on space explorations as this could make food production possible using synthetic and biology-based approaches.
"Technology drives exploration, and investments in these technologies and technologists are essential to ensure NASA and the nation have the capabilities necessary to meet the challenges we will face as we journey to Mars," said Steve Jurczyk, from NASA's Space Technology Mission Directorate.
The idea of recycling human waste into food may sound gross but it is logical for space explorations as astronauts have to make the most of resources available.
"If you want to send people into space for a long period of time," said Mark Blenner, from Clemson's chemical and bioengineering department. "You can't go down to the Home Depot to get screws, or the market to get food; it's difficult, as space is at a premium."
Blenner genetically engineers yeast using breathed-out carbon dioxide and urine as building blocks to produce things needed by astronauts aboard spaceships.
Blenner said that a strain of yeast can be genetically engineered to produce plastics that can be used for 3D printing and Omega 3s that protect the skin and hair as well as reduce risks for heart disease. The yeast needs nitrogen to grow and this chemical happens to be abundant in urine.
The yeast also feeds on lipid that certain algae produce out of carbon. If a system that can turn carbon-dioxide-containing breath into lipids using algae can be created, the system would grow yeast that can turn nitrogen and lipids into plastics and Omega 3s.
The study is one of eight that will receive funding from the space agency in a bid to find technologies that will be helpful for longer term space missions.