A NASA Partnership Leads to Innovation on the Microbial Scale
A Small Solution for Big Problems
Given the size of our planet and its wealth of resources, it is easy to forget that those resources are finite. As Earth’s human population continues to grow, the questions of how to effectively limit and recycle waste, avoid environmental contamination, and make the most of water and fuel reserves become all the more pressing.
On a much smaller scale, these same concerns apply to astronauts living within the closed system of the International Space Station (ISS). All resources onboard the ISS—air, water, energy—are limited and must be carefully managed and recycled to create a sustainable environment for the crewmembers. This challenge must be met without the natural systems that provide for and sustain life on Earth.
Well before construction of the ISS began in 1998, NASA was investigating ways water could be purified and reused by astronauts living in orbit. One method the Agency explored—through partnership with a small Texas company—involved bringing into space Earth’s most abundant biological resource: bacteria.
A Natural Choice For Space and Earth
Micro-Bac International began business in the early 1980s with the idea to selectively utilize Earth’s natural waste management system to provide safe, efficient, and environmentally sound solutions for a host of applications.
“In the biosphere, everything gets broken down by microorganisms,” says Dennis Schneider, vice president and director of research and development for Micro-Bac. “What we’ve found over the years is that we can isolate microorganisms out of the environment, and individual strains of those would have the capacity to break down certain types of organic compounds that are typically difficult to degrade. It’s a natural process with no toxic byproducts.”
Through a partnership with Marshall Space Flight Center, the company developed a phototrophic cell for water purification. Inside the cell: millions of photosynthetic bacteria from strains specifically isolated for their ability to break down toxic chemicals astronauts could encounter on the ISS. Requiring only enough light to sustain the bacteria, the cell could provide a low-power option for cleansing wastewater during long-term space missions.
Breaking It All Down
The company now uses those bacteria strains for the remediation of animal waste, wastewater systems, and septic tanks, and in waste treatment for livestock farms and food manufacturers. The leading U.S. pork producer, tortilla plants, juice makers, microbreweries, and even tequilerias in Mexico use Micro-Bac’s natural, nonpathogenic biotechnology to help limit the environmental impact of their waste byproducts. Micro-Bac also offers products designed to treat hazardous and contaminated waste; dairy waste; grease, fats, and oils; waste from fruit and vegetable processing; and waste from leather tanning.
Micro-Bac’s oil-targeted microbial solutions are effective tools for countering environmentally damaging oil spills. The company has assisted in the cleanup of crude oil spills in Ecuador, and officials called upon Micro-Bac’s microbial solutions to help mitigate the environmental impact of the catastrophic 2010 Deepwater Horizon oil rig explosion off the coast of Louisiana by breaking down oil that reached shore.
The derivatives of the company’s small-scale, NASA-inspired innovation continue to help address large-scale environmental concerns in the United States and beyond.
“A wellspring of utility has come out of that work,” says Schneider.
To learn more about this NASA spinoff, read the original articles from Spinoff 2010