Project could help colonize space

Aug 02, 2011
Project could help colonize space

Humans may move one step closer to colonizing space thanks to a new research project that NASA is funding at South Dakota State University, the South Dakota School of Mines and Technology and Oglala Lakota College.

The South Dakota institutions have won a grant of $750,000 to study ways to use cyanobacteria to make energy-dense fuels and high-value chemicals, oxygen, and cleansed water directly from carbon dioxide, sunlight, and wastewater.

Cyanobacteria are commonly known as blue-green algae.

NASA awarded the grant to a project submitted through the South Dakota School of Mines and Technology, but the largest share of the work will take place at South Dakota State University. Key SDSU researchers in the work include associate professor Ruanbao Zhou and professor Bill Gibbons in the Department of Biology and Microbiology; professors Kasiviswanathan Muthukumarappan and Gary Anderson and assistant professor Zhengrong Gu in the Department of Agricultural and Biosystems Engineering; and assistant professor XingZhong Yan in the Department of Electrical Engineering and Computer Science. Researchers elsewhere include professors Robb Winter and David Salem at the South Dakota School of Mines and Technology and professor Deig Sandoval at Oglala Lakota College.

“This project will help NASA’s Aeronautics Research Mission Directorate address the goal of providing renewable, energy-dense biofuels in a sustainable manner, while supplying technology to sequester carbon dioxide released by an astronautics crew,” Zhou said. “Cyanobacteria, through billions of years of evolution, have become well-tuned biological devices that can efficiently harvest solar energy, the one limitless source of energy on Earth, and convert that energy into a variety of reduced carbon compounds. Because of their simple requirements for rapid growth and ease of genetic manipulation as well as industrialized production, cyanobacteria are particularly attractive organisms for biofuel production.”

Because sunlight is available in space, life support systems that rely in part on photosynthesis to grow algae are one possibility for moving humans beyond Earth’s atmosphere.

The grant was awarded through NASA's Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research, or EPSCoR. The program helps develop partnerships between NASA research missions and programs, academic institutions and industry. It also helps states establish long-term academic research enterprises that will be self-sustaining and competitive and will contribute to the states' economic viability and development.

The researchers and NASA believe the project could provide "game changing" technology to NASA’s Office of the Chief Technologist. It could help resolve critical issues in what NASA calls its "Space Power and Energy Storage" and the "Human Health, Life Support and Habitation Systems" roadmaps — essentially summaries of what is needed to achieve national and agency goals in human space exploration over the next few decades.

The proposal addresses two of NASA's grand challenges — space colonization and affordable abundant power. The Exploration Systems Mission and Space Operations Mission Directorates will benefit by development of an integrated system that can support colonization missions by producing chemical building blocks and fuels from sunlight, wastes, and carbon dioxide; and by producing oxygen and clean water to maintain life support.

The project also proposes to develop an integrated photobioreactor and product recovery system, driven by solar power provided by light fibers; to strengthen collaborations with the NASA Ames Research Center to also improve performance of the Offshore Membrane Enclosures for Growing Algae system; to enhance multi-disciplinary undergraduate and graduate education on molecular engineering, bioprocessing systems, and applied photonics, including Native American students; and to collaborate with industrial partners to promote economic development in South Dakota.

“Our initial target product is a long chain alcohol with a much higher energy density than ethanol,” Zhou said. “This cyanofactory platform could be easily reengineered to produce other fuels and chemicals using free solar energy and .”

Explore further: Space debris expert warns of increasing CubeSat collision risk

add to favorites email to friend print save as pdf

Related Stories

Tech sails into space-based research project

Sep 16, 2004

Dr. Chris Jenkins, a researcher at South Dakota School of Mines and Technology, is developing instrumentation that could help NASA find planets outside our solar system, photograph the sun and create an advanced warning sy ...

Life on earth could be transformed by NASA space technology

Oct 21, 2010

For years, NASA has been developing technology to establish long-duration human presence in space. As part of this ongoing effort, NASA developed a closed-loop system that recycles urine and gray water into drinking water. ...

Teaching algae to make fuel

May 24, 2011

Many kinds of algae and cyanobacteria, common water-dwelling microorganisms, are capable of using energy from sunlight to split water molecules and release hydrogen, which holds promise as a clean and carbon-free ...

Recommended for you

Sandblasting winds shift Mars' landscape

4 hours ago

High winds are a near-daily force on the surface of Mars, carving out a landscape of shifting dunes and posing a challenge to exploration, scientists said Tuesday.

PanSTARRS K1, the comet that keeps going

6 hours ago

Thank you K1 PanSTARRS for hanging in there! Some comets crumble and fade away. Others linger a few months and move on. But after looping across the night sky for more than a year, this one is nowhere near ...

NASA rocket has six minutes to study solar heating

8 hours ago

(Phys.org) —On Sept. 30, 2014, a sounding rocket will fly up into the sky – past Earth's atmosphere that obscures certain wavelengths of light from the sun—for a 15-minute journey to study what heats ...

Cassini watches mysterious feature evolve in Titan sea

23 hours ago

(Phys.org) —NASA's Cassini spacecraft is monitoring the evolution of a mysterious feature in a large hydrocarbon sea on Saturn's moon Titan. The feature covers an area of about 100 square miles (260 square ...

User comments : 1

Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

LKD
5 / 5 (1) Aug 03, 2011
"game changing", "roadmaps", "economic viability", "sustainable", ... Oh how I hate buzz words.

"including Native American students"

Dare I ask why this was necessary to be stated?