Bob Zubrin’s Pioneer Astronautics Selected for NASA SBIR Phase II Awards

NASA has selected Bob Zubrin’s Pioneer Astronautics for two Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) Phase II awards to continue developing technologies to further human missions to deep space and  Mars. Each award is worth up to $750,000 over two years.

“The Advanced Organic Waste Gasifier (AOWG) is a technology designed to convert organic wastes generated during human spaceflight into clean water for mission consumables and gases suitable for venting to minimize vehicle mass for Mars transit and return missions,” the company said in a proposal summary.

“The AOWG integrates steam reformation, methanation, and electrolysis to convert organic waste into water, dry vent gas, and a small amount of inorganic residue, thereby reducing transit propellant and tankage mass,” the summary added.

The other proposal is for continued development of technology to use on the martian surface.

“The Liquid Sorption Pump (LSP) is a new technology for acquiring CO2 from the Martian atmosphere for use in In Situ Resource Utilization (ISRU) systems. In the LSP, a solvent, such as an alcohol, ketone, or acetate is cooled to temperatures below -100 C, where it becomes an effective solvent for Mars atmospheric CO2,” the proposal summary stated.

The proposal summaries are below.

Pioneer Astronautics
Lakewood, Colo.

Advanced Organic Waste Gasifier
Subtopic: Waste Management and Resource Recovery

Principal Investigator
Stacy Carrera

Estimated Technology Readiness Level (TRL) :
Begin: 4
End: 6

Technical Abstract

The Advanced Organic Waste Gasifier (AOWG) is a technology designed to convert organic wastes generated during human spaceflight into clean water for mission consumables and gases suitable for venting to minimize vehicle mass for Mars transit and return missions. The AOWG integrates steam reformation, methanation, and electrolysis to convert organic waste into water, dry vent gas, and a small amount of inorganic residue, thereby reducing transit propellant and tankage mass.

The AOWG reduces risks associated with storing, handling, and disposing food waste and packaging, waste paper, wipes and towels, gloves, fecal matter, urine brine, and maximum absorbency garments in microgravity environments. The reformer provides nearly complete conversion of feeds to valuable water and jettisoned gas with minimal losses and consumables requirements while operating at pressures just above the ambient environment.

The baseline AOWG Phase II design incorporates significant novel enhancements to previous state-of-the-art Trash to Gas (TtG) steam reforming technology including a feed shredder, feed dryer, continuous feeder, tar destruction reactor, and water purification. The largely automated AOWG limits crew operation requirements primarily to loading packaged wastes into the feed hopper and occasional discharge and compaction of ash residue.

The proposed Phase II AOWG will be developed with a focus on achieving complete organic waste gasification simultaneous with maximum water production using feeding, materials handling, and ancillary systems geared to microgravity operations. These concepts will be integrated into a protoflight Phase II design, which will consider and accommodate the microgravity environment necessary to operate the AOWG through startup, steady operation, and shutdown. This progression of development will lead to implementation in advanced human space missions.

Potential NASA Applications

AOWG system is key for human space exploration, converting organic crew wastes into clean water, a small mass of sterile inorganic residue, and clean gases suitable for venting from the spacecraft. The AOWG is targeted toward minimizing overall transit vehicle mass, which minimizes mass requirement for propellants and tankage. Waste mass reduction with water recovery is critical for life support and to reduce overall flight costs.

Potential Non-NASA Applications

AOWG has applicability for terrestrial energy recovery, fuel and chemical synthesis from renewable resources, agricultural wastes, municipal wastes, and organic-containing wastes including paper and plastic. These organic-containing resources processed by AOWG methods produce syngas to convert into methanol or other fuels and chemicals using Fischer-Tropsch or other catalytic synthesis processes.

Duration: 24 months


Liquid Sorption Pump
Subtopic: Mars Atmosphere ISRU for Mission Consumables

Principal Investigator
Robert Zubrin

Estimated Technology Readiness Level (TRL) :
Begin: 4
End: 6

Technical Abstract

The Liquid Sorption Pump (LSP) is a new technology for acquiring CO2 from the Martian atmosphere for use in In Situ Resource Utilization (ISRU) systems. In the LSP, a solvent, such as an alcohol, ketone, or acetate is cooled to temperatures below -100 C, where it becomes an effective solvent for Mars atmospheric CO2.

After absorbing 5 percent or more by mole CO2, the solvent is pumped to another vessel where it is heated to 30 C, releasing the CO2 at pressures of more than 1 bar. The clean warm solvent is then sent back to the absorption vessel, exchanging heat with the cold absorption column effluent as it goes. After the clean solvent is cooled to near the design absorption temperature in this way, a mechanical refrigerator is used to achieve the final temperature reduction.

Advantages of the LSP are that it can operate continuously day or night without the need for mechanical vacuum roughing pumps, solid freezers, or large sorption beds, requires less power than other options, is readily scalable to high outputs, and that it stops all sulfur, dust, or non-condensable gases from reaching the ISRU reactor system.

In the proposed SBIR Phase 2, an operating protoflight LSP unit meeting the full-scale NASA CO2 acquisition requirement needed to support will be demonstrated and its performance assessed.

Potential NASA Applications

The primary initial application of the LSP is to provide a reliable, low cost, low mass technology to acquire CO2 on the surface of Mars out of the local atmosphere at low power. Such a system can be used to enable human exploration of Mars, as well as a Mars Sample Return mission. ]

The LSP is dramatically superior to current alternative methods of collecting Mars CO2 because its power requirement is much less. Compared to roughing pumps or solid sorption beds, the LSP can reduce CO2 acquistion power requirements by an order of magnitude.

Potential Non-NASA Applications

The LSP could be used to separate CO2 from flue gas and other exhaust streams on Earth. Once separated the CO2 could be used to enable enhanced oil recovery (EOR). The USA has hundreds of thousands of dormant oil wells that could be revived by using CO2 to pressurize them and lower their viscosity. This will allow for a dramatic expansion of US oil production while combating climate change.