February 25, 2022

Biomimicry in space exploration

By Conor McKechnie and Dodi Axelson

Biomimicry in space exploration

Sustained life and colonization in space is closer than ever, and biology holds the key. Biomimetic processes have applications for water filtration and for building homes on Mars. Jörg Vogel, VP of Open Innovation at Aquaporin, discusses how their Aquaporin Inside® Membrane Technology will help filter condensate and urine to make drinking water for astronauts.

We are also joined by Chris Maurer, an architect and founder of redhouse studios in Cleveland, Ohio. Chris is working on a project with NASA to build homes on Mars using mycelium.

Join Dodi and Conor for this truly ‘out-of-this-world’ episode.


CONOR: Dodi, would you believe it, today is episode number fifty!

DODI: Five-zero!

CONOR: I know, does it make you feel old?

DODI: I'm already older than 50. So, let's not talk anymore about that.

CONOR: Well, you know, we have come a long way and I just thought, let's think about how far we've come in the last 50 years in space.

DODI: Are we going to talk about poop in space?

CONOR: Maybe we could get there. I mean, you know, poop, bugs, and fungus are all the things that I love the most.

DODI: It's inevitable on this podcast.

CONOR: So, we're going to infinity and beyond. And I'm going to make as many sci-fi puns as I can because Dodi...

DODI: ...that's what matters on...

CONOR: Discovery Matters.

JÖRG VOGEL: The water industry on Earth is rather conservative, right?

CONOR: So, this is Jörg.

JÖRG VOGEL: So, my name is Jörg Vogel. I'm the VP of Open Innovation at Aquaporin and have worked on our space-related ventures since the beginning in 2011.

DODI: Aquaporin, where have I heard that before?

ANNOUNCER: he Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences has today decided to award a Nobel Prize in Chemistry for 2003 for discoveries concerning channels in cell name membranes. With one half the prize to Peter Agre, John Hopkins University School of Medicine in Baltimore, USA, for the discovery of water channels, and one half of the price to Roderick MacKinnon...

CONOR: You may remember that back in 2003, Peter Agre was awarded the Nobel Prize in Chemistry for discovering aquaporin water channels in 1992.

DODI: Okay, so what exactly are aquaporins?

CONOR: Well, Jörg told me that, in a nutshell, an aquaporin is the water channel, made by proteins, that spans the cell membrane and transports water, and only water in and out of cells.

JÖRG VOGEL: So, it's essentially regulating the water content of the cell. And it's a passive channel. So, it's actually not transporting actively, it relies on osmotic pressure differences. So, it is just the part of the cell membrane that decides what water goes in, like clean water mainly because it's a pure H20 transporter, nothing else can pass the channel. So, it's a very selective tool, and that's what nature does best.

DODI: So, it's a hole in the cell membrane. But how does nothing other than water pass through that?

CONOR: Genius, isn't it? Life is so amazing. One gram of aquaporins, these tiny little holes, can filter up to 700 liters of water per second. So, the practical use here on Earth were around 71% of our surface is covered by water, but less than 1% of that is safe to drink, well, it's exciting to say the least.

JÖRG VOGEL: We have everything from household water purifiers that can be used in households to filter tap water, where you can treat it directly to make it safe to drink. Or you just want to have some kind of water that tastes a bit different because it's a bit de-mineralized. So, it's softer. All the way to high pressure applications where we go into industrial wastewater, to clean industrial waters, or generate drinking water from surface water for example.

DODI: Okay, love that! But I thought you promised space.

CONOR: Okay. Yes, we are. Now may be time to 'beam us up' because in 2011 Jörg and his colleagues at Aquaporin headquarters were contacted by none other than NASA.

JÖRG VOGEL: They are on constant lookout for new technologies. They don't shy away from a bit of risk to try something new, because whatever can help them to make it more efficient means everything helps, right? If you look at like long term travel or long space flights, Mars travel and so on, like the less water they have to ship up and with them, the better it is, because it's quite expensive to send that stuff up.

CONOR: So, there Jörg is suddenly in one of NASA's research centers bang in the heart of Silicon Valley.

JÖRG VOGEL: The first tests we did with our very first prototypes were actually in the NASA Ames Labs in California. We've never tested it outside of our own lab. The first time we tested it was there.

DODI: Okay, so what excited NASA so much about Aquaporin Inside® Membrane Technology? What could they do with Aquaporin in future space exploration?

CONOR: Well, think about just living in a closed environment like the International Space Station. I mean, where does the water come from? Where does it go?

JÖRG VOGEL: The only water sources they have up there is the water they fly up, and then there is urine and condensate. So basically, the water you breathe out, like the humidity, is recovered and so on. And there are certain contaminants in there. And of course, urine is the biggest source of water they have because it's the water they use every day. Then they mix that with what comes out of that treatment with the condensate and then run it through different processes, which is like a big cupboard that's built up there on the ISS. So, it works. It's stable.

CONOR: But for Jörg, the ISS is just small potatoes. When it comes to the future, he's thinking big...

JÖRG VOGEL: When you talk about kind of the Lunar Orbiter, or like this gateway they want to build, that's going to be a space that's not necessarily inhabited the whole time. And it's going to be more space constricted. So, like you have to get the new kind of solutions in there.

CONOR: And that's where Jörg and Aquaporin come in.

JÖRG VOGEL: We want to make like a compact unit to treat the urine and condensate directly without further treatment steps. So, take that concept where we take as much water out as we can and then in the end it comes drinking water. So, your inputs are urine and condensate, and your output is portable water. And it should be like a very compact size unit that can have some certain requirements, and energy use, and can be shut down and started up again without bigger implications, because that's also like quite a challenge this kind of by pausing of processes, which makes it even more difficult.

DODI: Whoa, okay. So, how is it actually tested? Is there somewhere on Earth where they can test it in like a space-like tunnel?

CONOR: You could test it on earth if you wanted to, if you weren't amazing, and didn't have access to the International Space Station itself, which is what Aquaporin did in September 2015. The Danish astronaut Andreas Mogensen performed a space test of the Aquaporin Inside® membranes on the space station itself.

JÖRG VOGEL: When he had his tour up into space he tested it in a proof of principle test, nothing that he could drink or anything but like just a proof of principle. So, we know the membrane filtration works in space. And now we have to kind of build a unit where we take into account all kinds of challenges we could encounter, build a flight unit, and then basically wait until we get the time and money and funding to go up to ISS and test it.

CONOR: And what's really fascinating for me is the fact that all of this concept is what we call biomimetic.

DODI: Okay, so now you're going to tell me how this connects to life sciences, I hope?

CONOR: Yes, of course. So, biomimicry, or biomimetics, is where ideas for engineering solutions and chemistry come from biology, right? So, we look at how life has solved problems over a period of millions of years using evolution. And we think about applying that to problems that we're facing in materials, or machines, and functions that we need our technologies to perform.

JÖRG VOGEL: Why invent new things if it's already the best solutions out there? We just need to harvest it somehow.

CONOR: So, we watch science fiction, and some of them are really sort of hyper realistic and based on real physics, but they never address those issues about like, 'Where does all wee go? And how do they shower? And where's the water coming from?' So, I just loved geeking out with someone about filtration and membrane technologies in space. So, you know, this was like all my dream interview questions come true. But never fear, I'm not finished yet. There's more geeking out!

Say you've bought some real estate on Mars....

DODI: As one does. An ocean-front property.

CONOR: Why not, you know, trading in futures.

CHRIS MAURER : You know, Mars is absolutely a limited resource environment.

DODI: Oh, this is a new voice. Who's this?

CONOR: This is Chris...

CHRIS MAURER : Chris Maurer, I'm an architect and founder of redhouse studio in Cleveland, Ohio.

DODI: So, we've landed on Mars...

CONOR: You've landed on Mars and it's pretty inhospitable. I mean, what are you going to do?

CHRIS MAURER : You have dust, you have a little bit of gas in the atmosphere, some subsurface water that's in most cases, you know, full of chloride. So, it's not great. It's not drinking water for sure, but it can be filtered. So, NASA or any space organization makes this trade off: if they're going to take a shelter to a destination but it will cost you energy, it's really going to slow you down. It's going to cost you a lot, so you can just have enough faith in yourself that you'll build your home when you get to your destination.

CONOR: So, this is where Chris and redhouse studio come in. So, Chris's vision is to grow mycelium homes in space!

DODI: Oh, here we go, Conor! Oh my god, you couldn't wait. You've gone from poop to mushrooms yet again. I'm feeling like you're one topic wonder...

CONOR: I'm not! I'm not! It's space as well, right? It's poop, and mushrooms, and wee, and space development, okay? So, space is where all the fun guys are...

DODI: Sounds pretty crowded in there, I can't imagine there'd be much-room...

CONOR: We have just done two fungus puns, that's pretty unacceptable. But hey, it's our podcast. We can do what we like, right?

DODI: Okay, seriously, how does all this work exactly with Martian soil and everything? I mean, we saw Matt Damon do it, was the Matt Damon Martian movie a documentary?

CONOR: Actually, Matt Damon did it wrong.

CHRIS MAURER : The soil there is inorganic. Some of the way we're looking at using this is actually to bind that soil, use the mycelium to bind it a little bit like cement does with concrete, so won't grow on it the same way that it would do to a biomass. The project that we're talking about actually has to grow an autotrophic organism first. So, we're using a cyanobacteria that is a colony-forming cyanobacteria. So, it starts off as these little, tiny algae, but then they start to link up and form colonies that are hair like colonies. So, that biomass is what then the fungus would use to grow on the algae and also do the service of fixing nitrogen. So, there's a type of organism called a diazotroph. They are amongst the very few organisms that can actually take nitrogen from the air and then convert that into biomass. It's a little bit like a lichen, where the plants and the fungus grow together, but we have plants and then the fungus comes on a little bit later. But for all intents and purposes where we're 'like-in' the project the way it is.

DODI: Oh, this is extraordinary.

CONOR: It really is. I mean, in many ways, what Chris is describing here is recreation from billions of years ago, the sort of hypothesized great oxygenation event when cyanobacteria, and what have you, made all of the oxygen that we breathe. And then the fungus evolved, and then it was plants, and then it was dinosaurs, and then here we are on podcasts.

DODI: So, how does Chris control the fungi and make sure that they do what he wants as they create the habitat?

CONOR: Well, he's planning on growing them in a bag.

CHRIS MAURER : The bag is like pretty much a laboratory in itself. And it's an environment within itself. The membranes have everything from, you know, artificial light to artificial heat, air exchange, and so it's a very biomimetic in the sense that it's almost like a living organism in itself. We have all of the cells that we plan to fill with the material. And so first, those cells will have the algae within it, and then they'll fill with water and carbon dioxide. And then that'll be like a small biome just for those algae to grow. And then once that reaches maturity, there'll be another process that happens that starts to dehydrate that and prepare it for myceliation. So, it needs to be like the perfect moisture content for the mycelium to start to grow through that. So, it dehydrates a little bit, but it still has that hydration to it that they can feed the mycelium.

CONOR: And during this process, oxygen...

CHRIS MAURER : ...That's a pretty good thing to. We're going to need that. So, we can store that oxygen and that becomes something that actually could, at one point, scrub the carbon dioxide that the space travelers produce. But in this case, we're actually going to store the oxygen because the mycelium is going to need that as well. And there needs to be fresh air exchange in between that happening because the cyanobacteria are going to turn carbon dioxide into oxygen and the mycelium is going to do the exact opposite. It'll respire oxygen into CO2.

DODI: So, these exchange systems kind of work the same way that the human body, or multi-celled organisms, deal with getting oxygen to the right parts of the body perhaps through holes that can allow water to go through them.

CONOR: Exactly, biomimetics at its best.

DODI: So, let's say NASA, or Elon Musk, or Jeff Bezos, all the wealthies who go up to space, they're going to send a spacecraft up to Mars and drop an entire village or town onto the planet, and then come back months or years realistically speaking and job done, your house is ready to go.

CONOR: And it's not just any old house, right? It's a house of comfort too.

CHRIS MAURER : If we plan to go to Mars in the 2030s, if this projects already starting to grow in the late 2020s, then not only will the buildings be there, and you can build many of them, but you have the opportunity to test those with missions. The first thing you're going to want to do when you get to Mars is have a shower, go straight to bed, and spread out a little bit because you now have been in a spaceship for about you know six months and a little bit of private time is probably necessary for all of the travelers. We envision actually not only growing the structures but growing the furniture using the same process. They will be soft materials that are kind of spongy, some materials that are foam-like that can be very nice to lay on. And then there is actually ways of making, you know, leathery substitutes or like actually fabric-like materials from the same processes or similar processes that use microorganisms to create the material. So, almost everything in the room you're in now could be substituted with this process.

DODI: Now, let's talk about the radioactive elephant in the room: radiation!

CONOR: Right, because we know that outside of the protective magnetosphere of the Earth there is dangerous ionizing radiation, but get this mycelium is kind of magic in that way. It can be used to protect space travelers from that radiation.

CHRIS MAURER : Fungi are excellent at coping with radiation. So, I think researchers first noticed this when at Chernobyl, there were some fungi that were really proliferating around there, and they brought it back to the lab. They noted that the mycelium actually grows towards the radiations source. So, fungi, just like plants, take visible sunlight and convert that into biomass and sugars. Fungi can do the same thing using ionizing radiation. So, that includes things like UV radiation, X rays, gamma rays.

CONOR: So, look, here's just another example of an organism that's millions of years old that has managed to solve a problem that we've frankly created. And it's just another example of turning waste or a liability on its head and making it a resource.

DODI: It sounds like Chris has the best job in the world.

CHRIS MAURER : Thanks. We have a lot of fun.

DODI: I guess now it's time to come back down to Earth and say thank you for listening to Discovery Matters. Our executive producer is Andrea Kilin, and this podcast is produced with the help of Bethany Grace Armitt-Brewster. Editing, mixing and music is by Tom Henley and Banda Produktions. My name is Dodi Axelson.

CONOR: And I'm Conor McKechnie, make sure you rate us on Spotify or whichever platform you use. We'll see you when we come back with another episode of Discovery Matters. If you enjoyed listening to Chris talking about mycelium, there's another episode including Chris coming up in 'Fungi part two'. Bonus points to anyone who can name the science fiction series with musical references in this podcast. Great to hear from you all... 'Na-Nu Na-Nu'.

Can’t get enough of space technologies? Tune in to the eighth episode of the podcast WATER x FUTURE presented by Aquaporin, where they discuss Aquaporin Space Alliance’s collaboration with NASA, and why it’s essential to reuse what you have in space – even the astronauts’ urine!

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