Should we recycle urine on Earth, too?
After five days of tinkering, astronauts aboard the International Space Station ran their first successful test Tuesday of equipment that turns urine into drinking water. Should we try this at home?
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The concept of treating our bodily waste as a useful product is probably alien to most of us, but it hasn't always been that way. In ancient Rome, human urine was put to work tanning leather and whitening togas. The stuff was so valuable that the 1st-century emperor Vespasian imposed a tax on it.Skip to next paragraph
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Is it technically possible?
Aside from revulsion, a major obstacle to widespread urine recycling is the energy needed. You can distill it, but that requires bringing it to a boil. If you're the outdoors type, you may know how to construct a solar still – which uses a plastic sheet to create a sort of greenhouse effect to evaporate ground water and condense it into a cup.
The Watercone, a simple solar still designed to purify sea water, holds great promise as an inexpensive solution. But its maker remains silent on whether the award-winning device would work with urine.
Inventor Dean Kamen has no such reservations. The mind behind the Segway scooter appeared on the Colbert Report in March, claiming that his energy-sipping Slingshot vapor compression distiller could produce 1,000 liters of water a day out of any wet substance, including the ocean, a puddle, a chemical waste site, or "a 50-gallon drum of urine."
But how does it taste?
The New York Times's John Schwartz had the opportunity to sample NASA's recycled water at the Kennedy Space Center. The verdict: "Not bad, actually," although he noted that it tasted faintly of iodine, which was added to the water near the end of the process.
If these systems become widespread, we'll need a way to rid our recycled-urine water of that iodine flavor. Camping shops often sell little vitamin C tablets along with their iodine purification crystals to cut the harsh taste. But you can save your money on those overpriced tablets by dropping in a pinch of a substance that, even after NASA perfects its recycling system, will continue to hold pride of place in the space program: Tang.