Poop to plastic and biofuel, innovators put crap to good use

December 9, 2017 |

No matter how much we recycle, reduce or reuse, we will always have one kind of waste – human waste. From when we are babies to our last days, we poop. While most say “eww,” or share an elementary school poop joke, researchers at University of Calgary are saying “cool!” Instead of flushing it away, they found a way to turn what comes out from down below into something quite valuable way up above in outer space. And no, it’s not bullsh*t. It’s human sh*t.

Faced with two problems – 1) what to do with human waste in space and 2) how to get needed supplies to astronauts in space (especially longer space missions like Mars), scientists are working on solutions. The University of Calgary discovery is probably the most entertaining and interesting solution yet.

UCalgary’s gold-medal project, entitled “Astroplastic: From Colon to Colony,” tests the theory of using human waste as the foundation for a bioplastic that can then be used in 3D printers to build tools. The multi-faculty team received the gold medal prize during a recent competition in the International Genetically Engineered Machine Foundation’s Giant Jamboree in Boston.

“With space travel, such as a three-year mission to Mars, there are major challenges to overcome,” explains Alina Kunitskaya, a fourth-year chemical engineering student at the Schulich School of Engineering. “Transporting material is difficult and expensive, and how do you anticipate every challenge and everything you need over three years on a trip to Mars? Recycling waste is another major challenge.”

A visit to Calgary’s wastewater treatment plant and further brainstorming refined that idea into a solution for deep-space astronauts. And, armed with the advice of real space travelers like Chris Hadfield and University of Calgary Chancellor Robert Thirsk, the team had its mission.

“This year, the University of Calgary’s project involves using genetically engineered E. coli to turn human waste into bioplastics,” reads the team summary of the project.

“We envision our project as a start-to-finish integrated system that can be used in space to generate items useful to astronauts during early Mars missions. This will solve the problem of waste management by upcycling solid human waste into a usable product.”

And yes, it works. More than just an exercise on paper, the iGEM team actually produced the bioplastic in the Bachelor of Health Sciences laboratory, where the team worked all spring and summer, carefully documenting every detail of their collaborative work on a wiki website.

Their method takes bacteria they engineered to consume the volatile fatty acids found in solid human waste. The bacteria consume the acid, forms a plastic, and then secretes the plastic out. The plastic can then be used in 3D printers to create objects like tools needed on a space mission. Their next step is to test the process in a microgravity environment simulation over the next eight months.

From bioplastics to biofuels

Poop isn’t just useful in outer space or as a bioplastic feedstock, however, as we’ve seen it expanding into biofuels and renewable energy as well.

In fact, poop is becoming so valuable a commodity, that South Korea’s government invested $8.7 million in virtual currency that would pay people to poop for biofuels, as reported in the Digest in March. People there will get paid the equivalent of 43 cents every time they use the new waterless toilet developed by the Ulsan National Institute of Science and Technology that turns human waste directly into biofuel. Hope is that by 2020, the value of the currency will have increased so that every poop “donation” is worth about $3.12. The plan is that the virtual currency will help to support the economically disadvantaged in larger towns and cities where the systems will be implemented.

In Oregon, the city of Portland isn’t letting waste go to waste either. As reported in the Digest in April, the Portland City Council approved a measure to convert methane from the Columbia Boulevard Wastewater Treatment Plant into renewable natural gas suitable for powering the city truck fleet. “We’re going to be turning poop into power,” City Commissioner Nick Fish commented. ““Just think about that,” Fish said. “We’re taking waste and turning it into cash and along the way we’re replacing dirty diesel with clean energy.” Currently, methane gas produced at the treatment facility is flared, producing CO2 as an emission. Ultimately, the Council aims to capture and use 100% of its waste treatment methane.

Just last week, the Digest reported that AABGU researchers see promise in poop from the coup – poultry waste – for renewable heat and power. The scientists believe treated poultry waste could replace as much as 10 percent of coal used in generating electricity, which would reduce carbon pollution. And as reported in the Digest in May, Nigerian researchers developed a biogas process for chicken manure and invasive plants. Eight kilograms of poultry waste and sunflowers produced more than 3 kg of biogas — more than enough fuel to drive the reaction and have some leftover for other uses such as powering a generator. Also, the researchers say that the residual solids from the process could be applied as fertilizer or soil conditioner.

Bottom Line

So the bottom line on what to do with what comes out of our bottoms is up in the air, literally outer space. But poop is not only valuable for astronauts, but for us down on earth too. At the Digest, we are often amazed at what new feedstocks are able to be converted into something useful and beautiful, and while this feedstock certainly isn’t beautiful, we definitely see the value in something so sh*tty.

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