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How a Mars Mission Could Ease California's Future Droughts

NASA filters for astronaut urine have terrestrial applications, too.

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For a glimpse at how arid stretches of the southwest might one day deal with droughts like the one gripping California, a good place to start is the NASA Ames Research Center in the heart of Silicon Valley.

On the second floor of a building known as N239, with gray pockmarked walls designed to resemble the surface of the moon, is a room full of beakers, instruments and machines. This is the Water Technology Development Lab.

There, scientist Michael Flynn and his team are working on a daunting task: Making sure astronauts don’t die of dehydration. That becomes a particularly tricky problem as NASA winds up for a three-year journey to and from Mars.

Given the constraints of any spacecraft, the only way to do it is to recycle sweat and urine. And Flynn believes the best way to do that is to mimic the human body’s own processes, using synthetic membranes that, like the intestines, are lined with lipids and proteins that evolution engineered into ideal water filters. That technology already exists, but now NASA wants to engineer a bacteria that produces vast amounts of the stuff — creating a living membrane that can last a lifetime.

What does that have to do with a California drought? Everything.

More reliable and less energy-intensive water membranes could make desalination and waste-water recycling more affordable and efficient, easing pressure on groundwater and reservoirs.

Just how well it works at industrial scale remains to be seen — but it’s abundantly clear that new approaches are needed, whether they come from NASA or elsewhere.

Amid California’s worst drought on record, merely asking citizens to voluntarily stop watering their lawns and washing their cars isn’t cutting it.

Rains finally arrived two-thirds of the way into the wet season. But hundreds of thousands of acres of normally fertile farmland are fallow. The Sierra snowpack that feeds streams and reservoirs reached historic lows. Seventeen communities are in danger of running out of water in the next few months. And the federal government announced Friday that it couldn’t provide any water from its reservoirs to farmers this year.

Western states are bracing for a landmark wildfire year, and soaring food prices are likely to ripple throughout the nation.

President Barack Obama visited California’s Central Valley earlier this month to announce a $170 million aid package.

“We’re going to have to stop looking at these disasters as something to wait for,” Obama said.

Indeed, if this were a one-year fluke in a single state, muddling through with rationing and importing water from elsewhere might suffice. But it’s not.

This is the third year in a row California has struggled with severe water shortages — and much of the West is suffering moderate to severe drought conditions in 2014 as well. Large parts of India, China and Africa have battled droughts and resulting food shortages in recent years.

Given the twin challenges of population growth and climate change, the pressures on water systems are widely expected to grow in the decades ahead.

“Warming temperatures associated with climate change will likely create increasingly dry soil conditions across much of the globe in the next 30 years, possibly reaching a scale in some regions by the end of the century that has rarely if ever been observed in modern times,” concluded a report by the National Center for Atmospheric Research.

Their modeling found the trends would look something like this (keep an eye on the red in North America):

In other words, this year’s anomaly could become tomorrow’s new normal.

“This may be a wake-up call,” said David Sedlak, co-director of the Berkeley Water Center and author of the new book “Water 4.0.”

He said there are three main options for adding to the water supply: Recycling waste water, desalinizing sea water and capturing storm runoff.

All three could benefit from the sort of advances being explored at NASA. But he was quick to stress that today’s technology works and there’s no reason to wait around for radical breakthroughs to begin addressing these challenges.

The city of Perth, Australia, already gets about 17 percent of its water through desalination, while California awaits construction of a single significant plant. Some 17 are in various planning stages in the state, with the first set to come online in Carlsbad during the next two years, according to the San Francisco Chronicle.

“Solving the problem of water supply over the next 10 or 20 years is going to rely on technologies that are here and mature now,” Sedlak said.

We simply need the political will and capital to begin deploying them: Building more desalination plants, adding storage capacity, installing infrastructure for capturing urban storm water, and designing office buildings and homes with systems that can recycle and reuse water.

There are also big gains to be had by simply modernizing water infrastructure and using more efficient toilets, shower heads and washing machines, said Heather Cooley, co-director of the water program at the Pacific Institute. The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that 14 percent of treated water is lost through leaks.

In the Golden State, another ripe conservation opportunity is getting residents to replace sprawling grass lawns with “drought tolerant, California-friendly landscapes,” she said.

But there’s no question that there are vast differences in cost between traditional approaches and emerging ones. Groundwater starts at $375 per acre foot, while recycled water begins at $1,200 and seawater desalination costs at least $1,800, according to a 2010 Equinox Center analysis for San Diego County, Calif.

Making strides in water technology is critical for lowering costs, which in turn is critical for moving to these new systems. New approaches also promise to reduce energy use — which is not a trivial issue. Twenty percent of California’s electricity goes to moving, treating, heating and consuming water, according to the California Energy Commission.

The “biomimetic membranes” that NASA is starting with were developed by Danish biotech company Aquaporin for a variety of terrestrial applications, including more energy efficient desalination and water recycling. (See sidebar.)

The company’s membranes are lined with their namesake aquaporin proteins, naturally occurring compounds in cell walls that allow water through but block salt particles and toxins.

The limitation of this technology for astronauts is that the membranes have a shelf life. The proteins eventually unfold, losing the structure that makes them ideal filters. And failures aren’t allowed in space.

A malfunctioning water recycling system on the International Space Station back in 2009 was only repaired thanks to the delivery of a new part, something that won’t be possible during a Mars mission.

If hoped-for funding kicks in next year, the water lab will begin serious work on engineering the bacteria to create living membranes. Should it work as hoped, it would essentially self repair.

The plan is to integrate the membrane into NASA’s so-called Next Generation Life Support Water Recycling Processor, which is the current best candidate for a Mars mission.

NASA is also planning to build the technology into spacesuits to provide an emergency system should astronauts have to spend extended periods outside the spacecraft — say, in a scenario like the one imagined in the recent movie “Gravity.”

As NASA improves on the technology, it plans to test it on the International Space Station. But Flynn said they’ll put it to work on Earth as well.

By installing it within the closed-loop water systems of a NASA Ames building known as Sustainability Base, they hope to light the path for building water recycling technology within every home, drastically reducing demand for fresh water.

“It’s where we demonstrate commercial applicability — and potential for addressing challenges like the drought we have right now,” Flynn said.

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