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NASA improves urine-drinking technology

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If humans ever make it to Mars it will be the ultimate test in sustainability. The astronauts that make that first journey will have to set up a self-sustaining camp. And since Mars isn't exactly gushing with natural springs, conserving water will be especially vital.

How will they do it? Wastewater recycling. Yes, that means -- among other things -- turning urine into drinking water. It's technology that's already being put to use by astronauts aboard the International Space Station. But for longer, lifetime missions, like a journey to Mars, the technology will need to be much more efficient. That's what NASA is continuing to develop.

"We are very excited about the advanced water processor technology development work being done at NASA Ames," said Steve Gaddis, manager for NASA's Game Changing Development Program, in a statement. " We're anticipating a system capable of treating all exploration wastewater—including hygiene and laundry—at a recovery rate of greater than 95 percent."

To increase the recovery rate, NASA built on the idea of "forward osmosis" (which NASA described to SmartPlanet in 2011 in this video) so that dissolved solids are removed from wastewater. It also developed a more advanced water processor to better destroy organic contaminates. This latest model of wastewater recycling, known as the "first generation forward osmosis secondary treatment system" was recently completed and is now being tested at NASA's Johnson Space Center in Houston.

But space isn't the only place this technology is being used. At NASA's Sustainability Base, what it calls "one of the greenest buildings in the federal government," a forward-osmosis wastewater recycling system was installed at the base and is expected to help the building reduce it's water use by 90 percent.

Mars may seem far away, but it's driving innovation right here on Earth.

Photo: Flickr/NASA Goddard Photo and Video

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— By on February 13, 2013, 11:27 PM PST

Tyler Falk

Contributing Editor

Tyler Falk is a freelance journalist based in Washington, D.C. Previously, he was with Smart Growth America and Grist. He holds a degree from Goshen College. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure