Similarly to astronauts at the International Space Station (ISS), children attending a school in Morocco are now drinking recycled urine and waste water.
Struggling with the lack of fresh water resources, the school in Sidi Taïbi near Kenitra, some 30km from Morroco’s capital Rabat, has become the first public facility to use the technology developed by the European Space Agency (Esa) in cooperation with UNESCO, the University of Kenitra and two European companies.
The system relies on a set of organic and ceramic membranes with holes just one ten-thousandth of a millimetre in diameter, which is 700 times thinner than a strand of human hair. These tiny pores can filter out unwanted compounds in water, including nitrate – a problematic pollutant that comes from agriculture fertilisers.
In order to be fully self-sustainable, the unit was equipped with solar panels and a wind turbine to provide energy.
The water-treatment facility is a spin-off from ongoing research into closed-loop life-support systems performed by Esa over the past 20 years.
Especially for long duration space missions, it will be extremely important for the astronauts to be able to recycle as much of food, water and oxygen as possible. For example during a mission to Mars, it won’t be feasible to regularly resupply the crew from Earth. At the same time, bringing too much food and water from Earth would also be impossible as it would weigh too much to be launched to space.
The technology deployed in Sidi Taïbi has been previously tested in terrestrial conditions at Esa’s research station Concordia in Antarctica.
In service since 2005, the unit recycling waste water from showers, dish-washers and washing machines requires minimum maintenance.
However, there has been a substantial quantitative leap between the unit at Concordia and that deployed in Sidi Taïbi. While the maximum of 16 people live at the Concordia base at any point in time, the facility in Morocco will cater for 1200 students. Surplus energy and water generated during school holidays will be shared with people living in the town.
If the membrane approach works well in Morocco, the unit will be scaled up by a factor of ten to deliver water to the rest of the local community.