Winner’s algae project could oxygenate future space travel

Will Blackler, Cranfield Astronautics and Space Engineering MSc student PNL-161204-161929001
Will Blackler, Cranfield Astronautics and Space Engineering MSc student PNL-161204-161929001

The idea of growing algae in space to produce oxygen has won an engineering student £200.

Will Blackler, an Astronautics and Space Engineering MSc student at Cranfield University, submitted his idea to the Airbus annual National Student Space Competition last month.

He outlined a system where algae could provide astronauts in the International Space Station (ISS) with oxygen, after working on a wider project.

He said: “I developed the idea over a month, and definitely didn’t expect to come this far. It’s a privilege to have won the competition.

“As well as algae being low mass; a source of oil and protein; and easy to maintain, it creates very little waste product which would save astronauts taking lots of extra equipment with them to the International Space Station.”

Algae is fast growing at 25g/m2 (25 grams per metre square) each day. This means an initial small supply could last for months, and given that plants are a well-known source of oxygen, Will suggested that green materials such as algae could be harvested for oxygen.

Algae is also easy to maintain and can easily double up as food to accompany the typical astronaut’s macaroni, rice and vegetable meals.

Currently, the ISS relies on oxygen supplies from earth, which are generated through water. In fact, half of the oxygen used in the ISS is simply reclaimed from carbon dioxide.

The idea is in its initial stages and Will is in the process of analysing key challenges of introducing algae as the sole source of oxygen in the ISS.