South Dakota Mines Awarded $750,000 to Develop Power System for Space Missions

RAPID CITY, SD --- The South Dakota School of Mines & Technology has been awarded $750,000 to develop an extreme biological system to turn solid waste into a power source for long-term space missions. The NASA EPSCoR award builds upon earlier waste conversion concepts developed through Venkataramana Gadhamshetty’s research. Earlier this year, Gadhamshetty, Ph.D., P.E., BCEE., and his research team announced it had converted discarded tomatoes into electricity.

There is a critical need for a similar product for NASA, where long-term, manned space missions are challenged by waste-treatment and power requirements. During space missions, each crew member typically generates 3.6 pounds of solid waste from biodegradable (such as food) and non-biodegradable (such as plastic) sources daily.

This voluminous waste is a burden to space missions, as it increases fuel consumption and may create nuisance and health concerns due to the pathogens. The South Dakota Mines approach will use unique microorganisms isolated from the deep levels of the Sanford Underground Research Facility (SURF) in Lead as test subjects to develop an advanced biological module that uses electrochemistry principles, operates at thermophilic conditions and generates electric power from solid wastes in a single step.

The project will result in an efficient alternative to the current processes using chemical fuel cells, such as hydrogen fuel cells that require pure chemicals. A group led by Rajesh Sani, Ph.D., from SD Mines’ Department of Chemical & Biological Engineering, have isolated the SURF extremophiles.

Researchers will collaborate with experts at Argonne National Laboratory and Navy Research Laboratory and throughout industry to develop a stacked bioelectrochemical module that supports low-powered electronics, including a Mars microrover. Resources from NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Kennedy Space Center and Ames Research Center will also be used.

The project addresses three prime focal areas identified for research and economic development in South Dakota – energy and environment, value-added agriculture and agribusiness, and materials and advanced manufacturing.

The program will provide support for seven PhD students and offer opportunities for research collaborations with the University of South Dakota, South Dakota State University and two tribal colleges, as well as six industrial partners. This project also demonstrates a potential to develop infrastructure for research and education, improve competitiveness of faculty researchers, and develop commercial products for the state.