OSU students in chemical engineering are testing ways to recycle biological and human waste in weightless conditions. Their research may help make long space voyages possible.

OSU Students visit NASA
OSU Students visit NASA

When astronauts venture to the forbidden planet of Mars, it may be in part through the research efforts of students from Oregon State University. The OSU students are working on ways to recycle biological and human waste so that it can be used again and again on a long space voyage.

Such recycling technologies already exist, but they are dependent upon gravity. And in space, that is a problem. So NASA gave the College of Engineering a two-year, $500,000 grant to take advantage of its expertise in “fluidized bed” technology.

“On a long space voyage, everything has to be recycled,” explained Goran Jovanovic, an associate professor of chemical engineering. “If you’re going on a years-long trip to Mars, you won’t be taking along several years’ worth of food and water.”

Jovanovic assembled a team of undergraduate and graduate students and turned them loose on the problem. “We had to find another force to substitute for a gravitational one,” said master’s student Thana Sornchamni.

They decided on an electromagnetic current, with the idea that the magnetic force would act much like gravity. As a team, they created an instrument that would replace gravity with artificially controlled electromagnetic forces that could be adjusted to a variety of levels.

NASA officials were intrigued and invited the team to visit Houston to fully test its hypothesis. Waiting for them was the “Vomit Comet,” an aircraft specially designed to dive several thousand feet in mere seconds, causing periods of weightlessness-and nausea.

“I’ve wanted to be an astronaut since I was six years old,” said freshman Marcia Whittaker, an OSU chemical engineering student from Pendleton. “I’ll do whatever it takes to get up there in space.”

Joshua Stein, a senior from Portland, said, “The experience of weightlessness was incredible. I did get sick, but I would do it again in a moment.”

The results? “Not only did the team’s instrument work, it turned out to be more versatile than alternative technologies NASA planned to use in the future,” Jovanovic said.

And then, of course, there is the impact on the students. “This is what a real high-tech education can do,” Jovanovic said. “Give students the right opportunity and it will bring out all of the curiosity, ambition, and creativity that already exists within them.”

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