Editorial Feature

What Space Habitation’s Closed-Loop Technologies Can Teach Us about Sustainability

Human society needs a fundamental shift in its approach to solving the global climate change challenge. The newly-released report of the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's (IPCC) Work Group 1 confirms that the global temperature increase since pre-industrial times has already passed 1.1°C. A set of circular economy strategies could help the industry reduce CO2 emissions and limit global warming below 1.5°C by 2050.

In the late 1960s, when humanity realized the consequences of exponential economic and demographic growth, scientists compared Earth to a spaceship with limited resources and limited capacity to absorb pollutants and emissions. Now, nearly 60 years later, the awareness that a more sustainable economic development is urgently needed grows as virtually every country is affected by climate change.

The first part of the IPCC's sixth report confirms that changing weather patterns and extreme weather events are becoming more commonplace, thus disrupting national economies and people's lives.

How to Achieve Full Circularity?

The 'Spaceship Earth' concept was essential to shaping the ongoing transition from an open-loop economy (with infinite resources and waste reservoirs) to a circular closed-loop economic system, where recovery, recycling, and reuse of materials replaces the ever-increasing consumption of fresh resources.

While Earth's ecosystem is far more complex and capable than any artificial life support system developed for space exploration, it is getting unbalanced by human activity. Careful handling of its natural resources is therefore critical.  

As resources are scarce in space, especially those needed for supporting human life, waste is a non-affordable option. All materials and resources need to be recycled (or up-cycled) and reused. Similarly, responsible use and consumption of natural resources on Earth will benefit the sustainable development of our society.

In that respect, human spaceflight (and habitation) technology and sustainability on Earth share several common challenges, such as developing closed-loop technologies and sustainable use of resources.

Closed-loop systems can operate without external input of resources. The output of one system element is recycled by other elements downstream until the original store is available for reuse. Such closed-loop systems (like regenerative life-support systems) are vital for long-term human spaceflight missions, but they can also become a significant element in our sustainable development on Earth.

NASA ScienceCasts: The In-Space Refabricator

Video Credit: ScienceAtNASA/YouTube.com

Sustainable Energy Harvesting

Besides solar cell technology, which was initially funded and developed by the space industry as an energy source in spacecraft, modern space missions rely on harvesting waste energy in the form of heat or mechanical jitter to power sensors and other electronic equipment onboard spacecraft.

Energy consumption on Earth is expected to increase by a factor of 1.5 by 2050, and estimates have found 10% of industrial energy consumption to be used for lighting. On such a scale, terrestrial application of the energy harvesting technologies used for powering sensors on the International Space Station (ISS), such as by harvesting energy from artificial light sources, could potentially prevent 3.2 billion tonnes of CO2 emissions per year.

Closed-Loop Manufacturing from Space to Earth

In 2018, as part of NASA's 'In-Space Manufacturing Program', a device called the Refabricator was delivered to the ISS. The hybrid system, developed by an aerospace company called Tethers Unlimited, combines a plastic recycler with a 3D printer, enabling astronauts to transform plastic waste into high-quality 3D printer filament.

The filament can be used to fabricate replacement parts, tools, medical implements, food utensils, and other items required during long-term space missions. The Refabricator can recycle plastic items not generally associated with additive manufacturing.

Foam or plastic bags, which are used as packaging for the materials delivered to the space station, can be used by the Refabricator to create plastic spare parts or custom-made tools. The novel recycling process developed by Tethers Unlimited permits recycling the plastic multiple times.

If the production and use of plastics continue to increase unabated, the plastic industry will be consuming as much as 20% of the global oil production by 2050. From a circular economy point of view, the Refabricator's sustainable model for fabrication, recycle and reuse of plastic components can drastically reduce the amount of fossil-based feedstock used for plastic manufacturing and associated CO2 emissions.

Inside Biosphere 2: The World's Largest Earth Science Experiment

Video Credit: The Good Stuff/YouTube.com

Sustainable Food production and Bio-Regenerative Technologies

Perhaps the best example of space-derived technology that can improve sustainability is the closed-loop greenhouse biomass production.

Relevant to human spaceflight as a food source and as a bio-regenerative life-support system, such technology has the potential to improve the quality of life on Earth for billions of people.

Various experiments that have run in large-scale closed ecosystem research facilities like Biosphere 2 and small-scale model ecosystems onboard the ISS aimed to achieve water and air regeneration, nutrient and wastewater recycling, and productive agriculture without the use of toxic chemicals.

As a closed ecosystems laboratory, Biosphere 2 was one of the first attempts at experimental ecology at a scale relevant to planetary issues such as climate change, regenerative agriculture, nutrient and water recycling, and many others. In addition, Biosphere 2 made advances in carbon capture and storage, soil regeneration, and sustainable food production.

All these aspects of the research are particularly relevant to reducing food poverty, water usage, and CO2 emissions on Earth. Closed-loop technologies derived from spaceflight research are becoming increasingly relevant as part of our response to the critical environmental challenges we face on Earth.

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Industrial Response to Climate Change 

This article is a part of the IPCC Editorial Series: Industrial Response to Climate Change, a collection of content exploring how different sectors are responding to issues highlighted within the IPCC 2018 and 2021 reports. Here, Quantum showcases the research institutions, industrial organizations, and innovative technologies driving adaptive solutions to mitigate climate change. 

References and Further Reading

IPCC. (2018) Summary for Policymakers. Global Warming of 1.5°C. An IPCC Special Report on the impacts of global warming of 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels and related global greenhouse gas emission pathways, in the context of strengthening the global response to the threat of climate change, sustainable development, and efforts to eradicate poverty. Available at: https://www.ipcc.ch/site/assets/uploads/sites/2/2019/05/SR15_SPM_version_report_LR.pdf

IPCC. (2021) Summary for Policymakers. Climate Change 2021: The Physical Science Basis. Contribution of Working Group I to the Sixth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate. Available at: https://www.ipcc.ch/report/ar6/wg1/downloads/report/IPCC_AR6_WGI_SPM.pdf

Maiwald, V., et al. (2021) From space back to Earth: supporting sustainable development with spaceflight technologies. Sustain. Earth. 4, 3. Available at: https://doi.org/10.1186/s42055-021-00042-9

Nelson, M. (2021) Biosphere 2's Lessons about Living on Earth and in Space. Space: Science & Technology, 2021, 8067539. Available at: https://doi.org/10.34133/2021/8067539

R. G. Andrews (2019) Can Spaceflight Save the Planet? [Online] www.scientificamerican.com Available at: https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/can-spaceflight-save-the-planet 

U. Iftikhar (2019) NASA installs Tether Refabricator aboard ISS for in-space 3D printing. [Online] www.3dprintingindustry.com Available at: https://3dprintingindustry.com/news/nasa-installs-tether-refabricator-aboard-iss-for-in-space-3d-printing-148728

Boulding, K. (1966) The Economics of the Coming Spaceship EarthResources for the Future, pp. 1 - 14. Available at: http://arachnid.biosci.utexas.edu/courses/THOC/Readings/Boulding_SpaceshipEarth.pd

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Cvetelin Vasilev

Written by

Cvetelin Vasilev

Cvetelin Vasilev has a degree and a doctorate in Physics and is pursuing a career as a biophysicist at the University of Sheffield. With more than 20 years of experience as a research scientist, he is an expert in the application of advanced microscopy and spectroscopy techniques to better understand the organization of “soft” complex systems. Cvetelin has more than 40 publications in peer-reviewed journals (h-index of 17) in the field of polymer science, biophysics, nanofabrication and nanobiophotonics.

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