Scientists are looking into new ways microscopic organisms, like bacteria or other microbes, can make life in space, on the moon or on Mars more sustainable by helping with everything from producing energy to mining and even creating pharmaceuticals.
An international team of researchers says in a new paper this week that microbial-based space tech could end up powering homes and cars, helping to mitigate climate change and even play a role in building houses in the future.
“Microbes are really amazing and perform a lot of tasks for us on Earth, often with us not even realizing it,” Rosa Santomartino, lead author on a new paper in Nature Communications, told CNET. “Microbes are widely used in the drug industry, for instance, to produce insulin and antibiotics, as well as for the extraction of metals from mines, and more recently there have been efforts in using them to build structures.”
Santomartino is a researcher at the UK Center for Astrobiology at the University of Edinburgh. She noted that all the aforementioned uses for microbes typically require minimal infrastructure and are economical and environmentally low impact compared to more traditional methods. This makes them ideal for importing to the complex, low-resource environment of space.
In space it’s critical to use what is around you (that is, in situ resource utilization, or ISRU) and to recycle as much as possible. The researchers argue that microbes could help “close the loop” on sustainability, not just in space but also here on Earth.
“Their application to Earth would enhance a circular economy with recycling and efficient and green energy production,” Santomartino explained.
For decades, developing technologies to solve hard problems in space has come to pay dividends for billions of Earthlings, too. Our modern society is largely dependent onthat was initially developed for military and scientific reasons long before there were any commercial uses for it.
The study looks at roles for microbes in waste processing and reclamation, food and pharmaceutical production and even a process called “biomining,” in which the germs munch through lunar and Martian rocks or soil (called regolith) to get hold of silicon, iron or aluminum, as well as water, oxygen and hydrogen for fuel.
Germ and toilet power
A particular type of microbe called electricigens can use food or human waste to generate electrical current.
That’s right, the technologies enabling space exploration could eventually unlock innovations that allow our toilet time to charge our devices.
“If we can manage to make this (and all the other processes) very efficient for the space environment, which is quite difficult and harsh, then their application to Earth’s environment could be relatively easy to achieve,” Santomartino said.
Space could ultimately be a key testbed for innovations that not only produce energy, but that also help mitigate climate change at the same time by using certain cyanobacteria to capture carbon dioxide and convert it into fuels or other useful materials.
But how long does it take for technologies being developed and tested for space to trickle back down to daily life on Earth?
Santomartino said it depends on a number of variables, but many of the concepts — like furniture made from fungi and bacteria-powered fuels — are already being tested by NASA and others on Earth. Research into adapting them for use in space could also lead to scaling them up on Earth long before we all start moving to Mars.
“I think most of them should have an impact in the short [or] middle time frame,” she said.
A new era of toilet-based electricity and functional fungus may be closer than you might guess.
Nobody ever guaranteed that every vision of tomorrow would be glamorous, but it might be worth the lower utility bill.