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Water Treatment Technologies Inspire Healthy Beverages

Purification techniques for astronaut drinking water find use in probiotic drinks.

At NASA’s Johnson Space Center in the mid-1990s, Mike Johnson assisted the scientists who were developing technology to convert urine into drinking water. The research conducted by the Advanced Water Recovery Systems Development team has proven vital to space exploration. Thanks in part to their work, astronauts in low Earth orbit make the most of their resources, and those who will take part in future missions — like a trip to an asteroid or Mars — can count on having drinkable water for the journey.

The team in Houston specialized in using microorganisms to purify water. One breakthrough in the project involved the use of a unique technology: a trickling filter bioreactor. This cylinder- shaped unit is filled with porous spheres — providing a large amount of surface area for biofilm growth — and utilizes the wastewater itself as a growth medium for the bacteria.

Johnson’s days at NASA ended, and he became a chiropractor who also served as a healthcare practitioner by advising patients on nutrition. Given his background in wastewater regeneration, he was particularly sensitive to the issue of unhealthy drinks. Johnson thought back to his NASA days. “We used bacteria to remove the bad stuff from urine, so I thought, why not use probiotics to add healthy stuff to a drink?” (A probiotic is a microbe that protects its host and prevents disease.)

The experiment started in the back of his chiropractic office, where Johnson began growing probiotics in 55-gallon oak wine barrels. He used the bacteria to brew batches of kombucha — a live, cultured tea that has been fermented by bacteria and yeast — and filled empty beer bottles with the results. In order to produce higher-quality bacteria, and produce more of it, he looked to the trickling filter bioreactor from NASA for inspiration. He used the expertise he gained at NASA to custom-build his own bioreactor, but on a larger scale. At 750 gallons, it holds nearly 40 times as much fluid as the one the team in Houston used.

One day, one of his patients decided to take her free sample back to her employer, Whole Foods Market. The local store immediately showed interest. Soon after, Johnson founded Unpeeled Inc. in Minneapolis-St. Paul, MN, and his NASA-enhanced drink began appearing on the shelves at Whole Foods, as well as other local specialty food stores.

Unpeeled starts with a kombucha base, to which Johnson adds his own blend of four different probiotics. The bacteria and yeast naturally form a cellulose matrix, or a balanced growth configuration, which allows the organisms to inhabit the same medium without killing each other off. The probiotics remain live and active to the time the consumer opens a bottle. Once consumed, the drink’s bacteria propagate in the gastro-intestinal (GI) tract, aiding in digestion and reducing inflammation that causes muscle and joint pain. Unpeeled also helps balance the body’s pH levels by alkalizing them.

Unpeeled currently comes in six flavors, which begin with the same green tea kombucha, and are differentiated using natural flavorings such as raw ginger, cranberry, mango, sea salt, and juices from various organic fruits. In addition to enhancing flavor, these natural ingredients impart enzymes that bolster the drink’s health benefits further. Johnson will soon release a second probiotic beverage line made from a coconut-water base, also to be available in a variety of flavors.

Visit http://spinoff.nasa.gov/Spinoff2012/hm_1.html for the full story.