The International Space Station is now home to a high-performance water recycling system from Japan. The system, part of the Japanese Experiment Module known as Kibo, is able to take urine from astronauts on the ISS and recycle it back into drinking water.
Japan’s high-performance water recycling system was created by the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency (JAXA) in partnership with private companies, and was first launched into space in November 2019.
A Three Step Water Treatment Process
Japan’s water recycling system uses a three step treatment process to ensure that the resulting recycled water is safe for human consumption.
First, in a process called ion exchange, impurities such as magnesium and calcium are removed.
Second, the water is heated to 250 degrees Celsius (482 degrees Fahrenheit), high pressure (about 70 times the ground atmospheric pressure) is applied, and an electric current is passed through the liquid. This stage helps to decompose organic matter in the water.
In the last step, electrodialysis is used to remove remaining ionic substances. This purifies the water to a point that it is safe to drink.
Highly Effective Water Recycling Technology
The NASA water recovery system that currently supplies recycled water safe for drinking to astronauts aboard the ISS is only able to recover/recycle 80% of used water. It also requires regular maintenance, including the replacement of consumables used in the recycling process. This involves getting supplies sent from Earth on a regular basis.
Japan’s experimental system, which is half the size of the NASA system, will be able to recover/recycle over 92% of used water. In addition, the smaller system will use 30% less power than the current model.
The new system from Japan is also able to regenerate the ion-exchange resin needed for the water treatment process. This eliminates the need for replacement of consumables.
In the future, the Japan Aerospace Exploration Agency hopes to develop a water recycling system that can effectively recycle 98% of used water. This highly-effective and efficient technology could be a game changer for areas experiencing drought and other disasters that severely limit the water supply.
Making Space More Earth-Like
The ISS may be used in the not too distant future for commercial purposes, including a “space hotel” and a setting for movie shoots. This all comes as space travel for private citizens is becoming more and more doable.
Yusaku Maezawa, founder of the apparel retailer ZOZO, will be the first Japanese private citizen astronaut aboard the ISS in December. He plans to stay aboard for 12 days. In the U.S., SpaceX has plans to launch four private citizens into space by the fall.
As private citizens head to space, the spacecraft and space stations will need to become more Earth-like. Japan’s water recycling system, along with other important biotechnology to make living in space more comfortable, will serve as part of the essential lifestyle infrastructure needed to make extended stays in space possible.
Water is, after all, the most important resource to humans, and a necessary component of life. The changing technology gets us one step closer to a time when many humans could be calling space home.
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