Mines Developing New Power System for Space Missions with $750,000 NASA Award

Dr. Venkataramana Gadhamshetty is interviewed by local media after the announcement of a $750,000 NASA award to develop a new power system for long-term space missions.

The South Dakota School of Mines & Technology has been awarded $750,000 to develop an extreme biological system to turn solid waste into a power source for long-term space missions.

The NASA EPSCoR award builds upon earlier waste conversion concepts developed through Dr. Venkataramana Gadhamshetty’s research. Earlier this year, Gadhamshetty, of the Department of Civil & Environmental Engineering, and his research team announced it had converted discarded tomatoes into electricity (see below). 

There is a critical need for a similar product for NASA, where long-term, manned space missions are challenged by waste-treatment and power requirements. During space missions, each crew member typically generates 3.6 pounds of solid waste from biodegradable (such as food) and non-biodegradable (such as plastic) sources daily. 

This voluminous waste is a burden to space missions, as it increases fuel consumption and may create nuisance and health concerns due to the pathogens. 

The South Dakota Mines approach involves unique microorganisms isolated from the deep levels of the Sanford Underground Research Facility (SURF) in Lead as test subjects to develop an advanced biological module that uses electrochemistry principles.

The SURF extremophiles (see below) are known to survive harsh environments typical to extraterrestrial space, where it is seemingly uninhabitable. Their biology provides a platform for provocative research to develop bio-modules, which generate electricity from solid form of wastes, according to Gadhamshetty.

The module would operate at thermophilic conditions and generate electric power from solid wastes in a single step. The project will result in an efficient alternative to current processes, which use chemical fuel cells.

This project also demonstrates a potential to develop infrastructure for research and education, improve competitiveness of faculty researchers, and develop commercial products for the state.

Mines researchers will collaborate with experts at Argonne National Laboratory and Navy Research Laboratory. The program will also provide support for seven PhD students and offer opportunities for research collaborations with the University of South Dakota, South Dakota State University and two tribal colleges, as well as six industrial partners. 

Last edited 11/2/2016 3:29:54 PM

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