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How NASA is recycling urine into drinking water

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As a life support engineer at NASA Ames Research Center, it's Michael Flynn's job to keep astronauts alive in space, making sure they have the basic necessities like clean water to survive.

What would you say if someone handed you a cup of water and told you that it was recycled from urine?

Yuck?

But NASA engineers think recycling water from the loo is the best way of giving astronauts access to a sustainable water supply while they are stuck in space.

Recently, the SmartPlanet video crew traveled to Moffett Field, Calif., to interview Michael Flynn, a life support engineer at NASA Ames Research Center.

No doubt, Flynn has a pretty important job. He works on technologies required to keep humans alive in space.

But launching clean water into space is cost-prohibitive, so for years, Flynn and his team have been working on new ways to recycle waste water into safe, drinking water.

"Space flight is extremely expensive and the expensive part of space flight is launch costs and spending money to launch water into space is prohibitively expensive so NASA has embarked on developing water recycling systems that allow us to recycle all waste water that is produced on board a spacecraft that includes urine and hygiene water and recycle that back to water that provides drinking water for astronauts," Flynn said.

In other words, Flynn's system allows astronauts to drink their own urine.

The water machine uses a process known as forward osmosis. The Forward Osmosis and Forward Osmosis method uses the potential energy difference between salt water and fresh water to transport water across a semi-permeable membrane, while leaving all the contaminants behind.

"The membranes are the key to the technology. They are generally a flat sheet of some sort of a paper material with a polymer put on them, and they allow water to transfer through them but do not allow salts or large organic molecules to transport through them," Flynn explained in the video.

And out comes..clean drinking water.

The thing is, the urine-drinking machine needs to be small so it can fit under a seat in a spacecraft. The unit can recycle 13.2 pounds of waste into drinking water.

Boy, I'm curious to know just how tasty the water is.

Basically, if NASA sent a crew to Mars now, this is the system they'd use for their drinking water...but that's not all. A six-person crew could use the recycled water to shower, flush toilets and wash clothes.

Beyond the immediate space applications, Flynn thinks growing interest in sustainability and recycling will create a need for this type of water machine to be used here on the ground.

"What we have seen over that time is people's appreciation for the impacts that they have on the earth have really improved and nowadays of course green technology sustainability, recycling are all really important to the majority of the population so the NASA technologies that we have developing over that whole period of time have now found a lot of commercial opportunities," Flynn said.

In fact, NASA is already working with the Expeditionary Unit Water Purification Program of the U.S. Office of Naval Research and Bureau of Reclamation to see if the water machine can be used for more earthly matters.

People are beginning to feel the consequences of global warming - and understand their role in it. As people contaminate water supplies, there's a need to use alternative water sources - and yes, even if it means drinking water that has been recycled from the toilet.

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Boonsri Dickinson

Contributing Editor

Contributing Editor Boonsri Dickinson is a freelance journalist based in San Francisco. She has written for Discover, The Huffington Post, Forbes, Nature Biotech, Technewsdaily.com, Techstartups.com and AOL. She's currently a reporter for Business Insider. She holds degrees from the University of Florida and the University of Colorado at Boulder. Follow her on Twitter. Disclosure