Space wonder

 
Published: Monday 15 November 1999

Power for spaceships from astronaut waste? Unbelievable but true. It won't be long before astronauts make a significant contribution towards replenishing depleted power sources on board a spacecraft: faeces and other solid wastes. Scientists from National Aeronautics and Space Administration (nasa) in the US have enlisted the support of Advanced Fuel Research, Connecticut, to find out prospects of producing energy from the waste generated by astronauts. The key to this brilliant achievement is pyrolysis: breakdown of the molecules in the waste matter by burning them in the absence of oxygen. Burning organic wastes like faeces or plastic usually results in the formation of CO 2 and water due to the presence of oxygen. But in pyrolysis, because of the total absence of oxygen, the molecules break their bonds and re-arrange themselves into smaller molecules. "Pyrolysis can produce heavier molecules such as benzene or toluene, and can be a source of raw material for rubber or plastic manufacture," says John Fisher, a chemical engineer at NASA's Ames Research Centre, California.

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