S.H. Jucha was a senior manager in the technical education and software development industries, with degrees in biology and broadcast communications. He is the author of the science fiction series, "The Silver Ships" (Jucha, 2015). Jucha contributed this article to Space.com's Expert Voices: Op-Ed & Insights.
Since the dawn of the Industrial Age, humans have made the environment's health a secondary consideration, at best. We pollute our streams, rivers, lakes and oceans with pesticide and fertilizer runoff, mining and oil wastes, petrochemical products and thousands of other dangerous products. Pollution has reached the point where a cleanup of our environment — on a macro scale with heavy equipment — is impractical, and despite present efforts, humanity is losing the fight to manage trash. Commercial and government-mandated recycling can't cope with the sheer volume of trash, and these programs only excel at processing such material as paper, aluminum and steel. In essence, the present forms of trash collection and recycling are unacceptable.
So is there an upside to our massive pollution challenges? Yes, I believe there is hope, and it will come from processing trash on the micro scale, breaking the bonds of molecules through bio-mechanical means, and it is quite possible that many of these innovations may emerge from efforts to explore and live in space.
Beyond the garbage patch
I'm in love with the future of garbage, a future in which all trash is fully recycled or reclaimed. To get there it will take the convergence of new technologies and an earnest desire to protect the environment.
Humanity is facing enormous challenges, managing the ever-growing demand for clean water and food, conserving dwindling resources, shifting to renewable energy sources and reversing the effects of pollution and climate change, to name a few.
And then there are the billions of tons of plastic that have been discarded across our planet in the last 60 years. So much debris has accumulated in the Pacific Ocean it has been termed the Great Pacific Garbage Patch. Scientists believe that the trash has been sinking beneath the surface, making accurate measurement of the amount of trash difficult. [In Images: The Great Pacific Garbage Patch]
Plastics, whose durability, inexpensiveness and malleability make it an easy choice for consumer and industrial products, make up the majority of the garbage patch debris. In a process called photo degradation, which is caused by the ultraviolet (UV) component of solar radiation (radiation of wavelength from 0.295 to 0.400 micrometers), the plastics have been broken down into smaller and smaller pieces. National Geographic states that scientists have collected up to 750,000 bits of micro-plastic in a single square kilometer of the Great Pacific Garbage Patch — that's about 1.9 million bits per square mile.
A cleaner path to space
Expansion of the human race into space will require conquering new and unique problems. Obstacles that were overcome in early space exploration have already made invaluable contributions to today's technologies and helped tackle problems we have faced on this planet.
Importantly, space exploration will not be a future of just probes launched to investigate asteroids and distant bodies — which I applaud — but more important, the creation of long-term habitats, both government and commercial missions, which Buzz Aldrin appropriately calls "permanence." The former astronaut and MIT postdoctoral graduate has outlined an ambitious and practical plan to colonize Mars. [US Needs a Mars Colony, Buzz Aldrin Tells Senators]
With the daunting challenges facing countries today — dwindling precious resources, effects of climate change, outbreaks of deadly diseases, long-term conflicts and mass human migration — 100 percent recycling/reclamation projects can't be high on their lists of priorities. However, long-term space exploration will have the priorities of food, water, oxygen, fuels, environment control, protection from solar radiation, and a growing pile of expended materials … trash.
Long-term habitation will demand extremely efficient resource management of water, air, organics and inorganics: those items that typically enter our trash piles when worn out and consist of everything from door seals to expended lubricants. Our scientists will have to approach the challenge of recycling with an eye toward 100 percent solutions, and recycling inorganics will present the greatest challenge. Simply put, trash will cost too much to ship back to Earth, and it would be invaluable if this waste could be fully recycled into environmentally useful components. With Earth's resources dwindling, the better we can recycle and reclaim what today we call "trash" and repurpose it in our commercial products the more we can extend the lifespan of Earth's resources. [Manned Mission to Mars By 2030s Is Really Possible, Experts Say]
Breaking down the durable trash
Petrochemical products — from synthetic rubber and solvents to fibers and plastics — may be degraded by various micro-organisms, which break the carbon bonds to produce byproducts such as methane, carbon dioxide and water. And space habitats represent an ideal environment to experiment with closed systems employing bio-engineered micro-organisms to recycle petrochemical products where, in case of accidental release of the organisms, it might be opportune to open the test area to vacuum. Why experiment with bio-engineered micro-organisms? There are plenty of examples that give credence to the concept.
Forty years ago, Shinichi Kinoshita, Sadao Kageyama, Kazuhiko Iba, Yasuhiro Yamada and Hirosuke Okada discovered a strain of Flavobacterium that digested certain byproducts from the manufacture of nylon-6, a form of nylon fiber that is tough and possesses high tensile strength, as well as elasticity. The fibers are wrinkle-proof and highly resistant to abrasion and chemicals such as acids and alkalis. It is telling that these substances, which did not exist before 1935, became energy sources for the bacteria. Microorganisms, with their prodigious reproduction rate, can quickly evolve to adapt to ever-changing environments.
A trip to the Amazon's Yasuni National Park by Yale University students and molecular biochemistry professor Scott Strobel resulted in the discovery of endophytic fungi (mushrooms) capable of eating polyurethane plastics. (Polyurethane is a synthetic polymer that is the basis of much of today's plastics.)
Methanogenic consortia, a diverse group of widely distributed archaebacteria that occur in anaerobic environments and are capable of producing methane from a limited number of substrates — including carbon dioxide, hydrogen, acetate and methylamines — have been found to degrade styrene, using it as a carbon source, and various fungi have broken down plasticized polyvinyl chloride (PVC). Soil, biostimulated by the introduction of wheat biomass, heavily influenced the types of fungi proliferating on the polyurethane. The most active of the fungi were found to degrade the polyurethane to the extent that the material lost up to 95 percent of its tensile strength.
One example of petrochemical degradation involves a rod-shaped bacterium, Alcanivorax borkumensis, which is found throughout the oceans. The bacteria consume alkanes, a form of hyrdocarbon, as their primary form of energy, breaking them down into carbon dioxide and water. It's aerobic and prefers a salty environment such as ocean waters. These ancient bacteria, resident since the planet began seeping hydrocarbons from the ocean bottoms, bloomed in heavy quantities after the Deep Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico and contributed to the removal of hydrocarbons from the Gulf's waters.
The attack of micro-organisms on petrochemicals has been continual since the advent of each product. Even space station& Mir was found to have been growing more than 70 species of bacteria, mold, and fungi in free condensate, floating water globules, hiding behind such areas as the station's electrical panels — and mold is capable of degrading rubber into digestible compounds.
An article from Applied and Environmental Microbiology detailed species of yeasts, bacteria, algae, and lichens that have been found growing on and degrading synthetic polymer artifacts in museums and at archaeological sites. Fungi and bacteria were responsible for an increased loss of plasticizers in PVC and enzymatic activity on polyurethane products. Wood-degrading fungi and bacteria enzymatically degraded nylon, and melanin-producing fungi physically disrupted acrylics.
Even phenolic resins, phenol-formaldehyde polymers — key ingredients in such products as Bakelite — have been observed being degraded, in this instance by the white rot fungus, Phanerochaete chrysosporium. Those polymers were considered to be non-biodegradable, and as of 2006, products of this type were produced at an annual rate of 2.2 million metric tons in the United States.
Engineering life to process trash
Space habitats, with their complete isolation, present an excellent opportunity for micro-scale waste management experiments that would involve genetically modified micro-organisms. Unfortunately, these types of experiments will not be a priority in the early stages of habitats. Supplies will be too precious to be consumed in "nice to have" experiments. However, when habitats graduate to the size of colonies, housing thousands of residents, "nice to have" may become "must have," and the pressure to develop efficient processes to recycle inorganics, such as plastics, will only increase as the colonies grow.
Creating and employing genetically engineered bacterium, fungi, yeasts, algae, lichens and the like to recycle petrochemical products until such time as alternative, easily recyclable materials are developed will be the responsibility of disciplines such as biochemists, geneticists and engineers — or collectively what I wish to call waste management's bio-alchemists.
Whatever new technologies long-term space habitats invent to manage inorganic wastes, recycling the material into reusable components, construction products or other practical purposes, it's my fervent hope that they will translate into a boon for solutions to Earth's problems.
A first step on Earth might limit the applications to controlled facilities, processing trash from homes and businesses. Later, with subsequent iterations that limit the micro-organisms' life cycles, the solutions may be applied to Earth's open waters and landscapes. Glory to the future of garbage management!
Perhaps in the future, commercial products may be created through technologies such as nano-manufacturing. It would eliminate the problem of inventing recycling methods or finding places to bury our trash, as these products could be repaired or recycled by reversing the nano-manufacturing process — or using "nanites," as I refer to them in my series of science-fiction novels, "The Silver Ships."
As an environmentalist, I do not see these future innovations as nice to have. I see them as economic necessities. If we wish to have the luxury of time to investigate our solar system, building habitats on distant planets and moons and involving commercial ventures, we must ensure the health of the global economic base, from which the funds and resources will spring to feed our space exploration endeavors.
At present, our global population is estimated to be 7.27 billion people, and by the mid-21st century, this number is expected to reach 9.6 billion. Regardless of the extent of our ventures into space, the overwhelming majority of these people will remain on Earth, and they will require a healthy and safe environment if they are to contribute to the global economy. Ensuring humans live in an invigorating environment would not only be good economics, it would be the right thing to do.
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