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This Filter Turns Astronauts' Urine Into Drinking Water. It Could Help Fight the Global Water Crisis.


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More than 2 billion people around the world don't have access to clean drinking water, but new technology used to purify water for astronauts at the International Space Station (ISS) could also help those on Earth who need it most, according to CNN

Danish company Aquaporin A/S developed a system that mimics the natural process of filtering water using proteins called aquaporins. The proteins allow the transfer of water in living organisms (such as how plants can absorb water from soil), and they allow for water purification 50% faster than traditional methods.

"It is essentially the mechanism that allows water to cross the cell membrane of living cells," Peter Holme Jensen, CEO of Aquaporin A/S, told CNN

The company refers to its system as utilizing "nature's own water filters."

Michael Flynn, lead for the Advanced Water Recycling Group at NASA’s Ames Research Center, has been working directly with Aquaporin A/S and Jensen to develop the proteins.  

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“Aquaporin is an example of a really interesting trend in technology right now,” Flynn told NASA. “[It has] the ability to manufacture biological machines, or biomimetics.”

Since it's difficult and expensive to transport water into space, every drop of moisture must be recycled and reused to ensure that astronauts have enough clean water to drink. The aquaporin proteins only allow water to pass through the cell membrane, so they can handle very dirty water. In space, the proteins are even used to extract clean water from the astronauts' urine. 

The system that NASA currently uses to filter water is heavy, only lasts 90 days, and fails to treat every containment. Now, NASA is considering replacing its system with Aquaporin A/S technology. 

On Earth, Aquaporin's technology could also be an essential part of fighting the global water crisis. According to UNICEF, approximately two-thirds of the world is affected by water shortages at some point in the year, making the demand for accessible clean water increasingly urgent.  

In November 2020, the company launched its first water purifier, ZERO, which provides three liters of water per minute without using electricity. 

Flynn told NASA that the purifier is like “a kidney to put under your sink.”

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The filtration technology can also be used to keep pollutants out of the world's natural water sources. Aquaporin A/S is working with BIOFOS, a Danish wastewater company, to remove microplastics from wastewater before flowing into the sea. 

"It has an enormous potential," Dines Thornberg, BIOFOS innovation manager, told CNN. Thornberg conducted a study that found that aquaporins removed 95% of microplastics and micropollutants. 

"I think the Aquaporin system could lead the way in actually creating clean, affordable drinking water from wastewater in the future. I am really optimistic that we can meet the challenges of water scarcity in many parts of the world with technologies like this," Thornberg said.