Igniting Waste

  • Released Thursday, February 13th, 2014
  • Updated Wednesday, May 3rd, 2023 at 1:51PM
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Caught up in the excitement of traveling to Mars or living on a space colony? Us too. But there’s one problem in particular that first needs to be solved: how to get rid of human waste during long-duration missions. Now, new technology being developed aboard the International Space Station by NASA and the French space agency may provide an answer. The key? Water. At a precise temperature and pressure, water reaches a supercritical state where it is neither a liquid nor gas, but something in between. When scientists add water to organic matter such as excrement and raise the slurry to this critical point, it's possible to burn the waste in a reaction which produces byproducts that are both useful and eco-friendly. Even better, after the water returns to its normal state it’s pure enough to drink. Watch the video to learn more.

At high temperature and pressure, water enters a phase that is neither liquid, gas nor solid. This is called the supercritical state.

At high temperature and pressure, water enters a phase that is neither liquid, gas nor solid. This is called the supercritical state.

This is what water looks like when it is 99 thousandths of a degree below the supercritical state.

This is what water looks like when it is 99 thousandths of a degree below the supercritical state.

Scientists prepare the test chamber used to develop the waste-burning technology for operation on the space station.

Scientists prepare the test chamber used to develop the waste-burning technology for operation on the space station.

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Credits

Please give credit for this item to:
Science@NASA and NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center
Cover image courtesy of NASA
Supercritical water image courtesy of CNES
Test chamber image courtesy of CNES/P. Jalby