NASA, USF test system that uses human waste to grow fresh vegetables

Human waste could be a key piece of NASA's plan to establish a sustainable presence on the moon and make successful trips to Mars.

A system developed by researchers at the University of South Florida converts human waste into fertilizer and water -- and it has the potential to give astronauts the ability to grow fresh fruits and vegetables in space.

It is done by using waste that is not wasted. The Organic Processor Assembly extracts water and nutrients from what’s usually flushed down the toilet.

“While NASA scientists are trying to figure out how to best grow food in space, grow plants in space, we’re trying to figure out how to make that sustainable by having a reoccurring supply of fertilizer,” explained College of Engineering Professor Daniel Yeh. “So what our technology does is it allows us to harvest everything that there is, the organic matter that the astronauts will generate, and we can harvest it as clean fertilizer to grow food.”

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The Organic Processor Assembly machine takes away the need to supply and haul chemicals to the extreme environments, and also becomes a sanitation solution.

“This is one of, I think, the most fun and most significant projects I have worked on,” said Yeh. “Learning a lot working with the folks at NASA.”

Yeh and his team at USF have been focused on this project for about three years; pushing the design to complete a complex job, but also be easy to use.  Not to mention keeping the unit compact and light-weight.

“What we’re developing has to fit into a spaceship of some sort, and then eventually into a space station or a surface habitat,” Yeh said.

One of two Organic Processor Assembly units is being sent to NASA’s Kennedy Space Center next week to be tested under simulated space conditions. The agency is expected to decide if the will be sent to the moon over the next two to three years.