This past year is the third year – in a row – that California has struggled with severe water shortages. The year has seen hundreds of thousands of acres of fertile farmland are fallow, the Sierra snowpack that feeds streams and reservoirs have reached historic lows, seventeen communities in California are in danger of running out of water in the next few months, and the federal government announced Friday that it could not provide any water from its reservoirs to farmers. California is not the only area suffering from moderate to severe drought, large parts of India, China, and Africa have battled droughts and the resulting food shortages in recent years.
According to a report from the National Center for Atmospheric Research, “warming temperatures associated with climate change will likely create increasingly dry soil conditions across much of the globe in the next 30 years, possibly reaching a scale in some regions by the end of the century that has rarely if ever been observed in modern times.”
Could there be a solution in rocket science?
Michael Flynn and his team at the Water Technology Development Lab might have the solution to severe droughts. The Water Technology Development Lab works to make sure astronauts don’t die of dehydration in space, particularly in the possible 3 year journey to and from Mars.
Given the constraints of any spacecraft, the only way to ensure a ready supply of water is to recycle the astronauts’ sweat and urine. Flynn and his team have found the best way to recycle sweat and urine is to mimic the human body’s own processes by using synthetic membranes that, like our intestines, are lined with lipids and proteins that evolution has engineered into ideal water filters.
A Danish biotech company, Aquaporin, has already developed this technology. Aquaporin’s biomimetic membranes are lined with aquaporin proteins, naturally occurring compounds in cell walls that blocks salt particles and toxins but allows water through. This technology requires about one-tenth of the amount of power than reverse osmosis, which requires pressure to move the water through the semi-permeable membrane. However these membranes have a shelf life as the proteins eventually unfold and lose the structure that makes them ideal. Michael Flynn and his colleagues are working with this technology to create living membranes that would be able to essentially self-repair.
Flynn and his colleagues plan to integrate the membrane into NASA’s Next Generation Life Support Water Recycling Processor as well as build the technology into spacesuits to provide an emergency system should astronauts need to spend extended periods of time outside the spacecraft. As NASA improves the technology, it will be tested on the International Space Station and in the closed-loop water systems of the NASA Ames Building known as Sustainability Base.
David Sedlak, co-director of the Berkeley Water Center and the author of Water 4.0, and others believe that while the three options for adding to the water supply – recycling waste water, desalinizing sea water, and capturing storm runoff – could benefit from the advances being explored at NASA, there is no reason to wait around for radical breakthroughs to begin addressing the dwindling water supply. He continues that we simply need the political will and capital to begin deploying them, like building more desalination plants, adding storage capacity, installing infrastructure for capturing urban storm water, and designing office buildings and homes with systems that can recycle and reuse water.
However, NASA’s work in making more reliable and less energy-intensive water membranes could make desalination and waste-water recycling more affordable and efficient. Currently there is a vast difference in the cost between traditional approaches and the emerging ones. Groundwater starts at $375 per acre foot, while recycled water begins at $1,200 per acre foot and seawater desalination costs at least $1,800 per acre foot, according to a 2010 Equinox Center analysis for San Diego County, CA.
If the National Center for Atmospheric Research is correct, the entire United States could be experiencing severe drought in the next 80 -85 years. It might be time to look to NASA for a way to create water here on Earth.