NASA researchers focusing on the difficulties of traveling into deep space have identified an unusual source for fuel that astronauts will be carrying with them anyway: trash. Scientists say there is a good chance that food wrappers, used clothing, scraps, tape, packaging and other garbage accumulated by a crew of four astronauts flying beyond low Earth orbit can be turned into valuable methane gas, oxygen and even water using processes and much smaller versions of devices that are already doing the same thing on Earth.
Working in a laboratory at Kennedy, Hintze's team built an 80-pound device that looks like a three-foot-long metal pipe. The device will test theories about incinerating a variety of trash ranging from used clothes to uneaten food. The reactor holds more than three quarts of material and burns at about 1,000 °F, about twice the maximum temperature of an average household oven.
Converting garbage into fuel also would keep astronauts from turning their cramped space capsule into an orbiting landfill. The research also holds potential for use on Earth in areas of the world where there are neither large power plants nor garbage processing facilities. Using smaller reactors, villages could dispose of their own waste and reap the benefits or an extra source of fuel.
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