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Ghent University contributes in development of regenerative life support units for space missions

(16-12-2013) Research teams at Ghent University of the Centre of Excellence Food2Know are supporting the European Space Agency (ESA) with the development of the MELiSSA project.

The driving element of MELiSSA is the recovery of food, water and oxygen from waste, carbon dioxide and breath condensate through the development of technology for long-term manned space missions. Without recycling, an estimated 30 tonnes of supplies would be required to sustain a manned Mars mission.

Ghent University researchers are working along the full path of the loop: from ultra-safe recovery of nutrients from the  waste to the sophisticated use of the nutrients to grow food, suitable for space conditions.

Here on earth, plants convert carbon dioxide to oxygen and provide clean air to breath. In addition they purify the water they extract from the soil and evaporate clean water into the air. This unique combination of properties of plants turn them into ideal partners in space where they can be grown in specialized growing chambers. To understand how plants are able to perform their cleaning activities and how this could optimized for use in space is an important challenge which could also generate vital knowledge for applications on  earth.

Resource recovery from waste is commonly not yet applied on Earth, as water and nutrients are still amply available, mostly in the developed world. Nevertheless, the demand side grows fastly with booming population growth and urbanization, while the supply side is more endangered with increasing water scarcity due to global change, limited phosphorus reserves and vast amounts of energy required for nitrogen production. Safely and robustly closing the loop is a prerequisite for space missions, and will be a crucial step for a global sustainable society of the future.

“With the ongoing climate change and increasing environmental problems, these new technologies can also be applicable here on Earth”, says Prof. Benedikt Sas from the Centre of Excellence Food2Know. The gained knowledge could be used to start growing food for our growing population in areas on Earth which currently are not suitable for food production. Prof. Sas continues “also companies on Earth can benefit from the space research. For instance, new energy efficient light systems can be developed and commercialized for growing plants in green houses.” Research on the recovery of nutrients from waste will be covered by prof. Siegfried Vlaeminck, prof. Arne Verliefde and prof. Nico Boon while research in crop cultivation will be covered by prof. Danny Geelen.

The MELiSSA project resides under ESA, and groups a large number of European organizations including universities and industrial world leaders.

The Belgian Federal Government (BELSPO) is an important partner in the MELiSSA project of ESA and strongly promotes the implementation of space research based innovations on Earth via industry.

Food2Know

This Centre of Excellence for Food Science, Nutrition and Health groups more than 35 research labs spread out over different Universities (Universiteit Gent, Vrije Universiteit Brussel, Universiteit Antwerpen), the National Institute for Agricultural & Fishery Research (ILVO) and the University Colleges (Hogeschool Gent, Hogeschool West-Vlaanderen). The full integrated chain "from farm to fork" is covered: from researchers studying the relation between feed composition and the quality of meat or fish, over conservation and packaging technologies, the relation between food and the general health of humans and animals, all the way to consumer behavior and perception.

More info

Website MELiSSA