Flying astronauts all the way to Mars, as in the new movie “The Martian,” presents a vast array of extremely complex technical hurdles.
But just like a key dilemma faced in “The Martian,” one of the big problems is downright basic — what will the astronauts eat?
Parameswar Hari, an associate professor at the University of Tulsa’s Department of Physics and Engineering Physics, said the eight- to 10-month flight time in each direction means the crew will need a large amount of food, and weight can become a cost issue.
“It’s an estimated $10,000 per pound of material for a trip to Mars,” he said.
That’s why a group of professors and students from TU have embarked on their own three-year mission to develop a system to help astronauts grow their own food with algae.
TU’s project is sponsored by a $750,000 grant from NASA’s Experimental Program to Stimulate Competitive Research and, when finished, will be sent up in space on an unmanned satellite to see how well it works.
Daniel Crunkleton, associate professor of chemical engineering and director of TU’s Institute of Alternative Energy, said the project decided to focus on algae due to their previous work with the simple, typically microscopic plant life.
“We had been working with algae for fuel, so we started to look at it for food,” he said.
The project will focus on improving the growth rate of algae to ensure astronauts have a sufficient amount to eat. But rather than attempt to alter the algae, the project will strive to give algae an optimal growth environment.
As plants, algae need sunlight to grow, Crunkleton said. But sunlight produces a wide range of wavelengths, and algae only respond to a relatively narrow range of wavelengths.
The researchers want to find a way to concentrate sunlight into that narrow range of wavelengths for the algae. Ken Roberts, an associate professor in chemical engineering, said researchers plan to accomplish this by developing a specific type of nanoparticle coating that will be applied over high-transmission solar glass that doesn’t absorb much energy.
“The algae will be sandwiched between these panes of glass, and the light from the sun will pass through the coating,” he said.
Roberts said they’re hoping to achieve a 10 percent to 20 percent improvement in the algae growth rate.
But don’t think they expect astronauts to just chow down on raw algae. Hari said the algae would most likely be used to supplement other food sources or to help feed other food sources like fish.
“If you’re on a very long flight, you wouldn’t want to eat algae all the time,” he said.
Hari said another benefit to having algae on a space flight may be its role in photosynthesis. As algae use the carbon dioxide exhaled by people and other animals, it could cut down on the need for carbon dioxide scrubbers.
TU had previously received a NASA grant to create improved batteries engineered with nanotechnology. Crunkleton said that research is ongoing.