The urine processor assembly (UPA) on the International Space Station (ISS) recovers water from urine via a vacuum distillation process. The distillation occurs in a rotating distillation assembly (DA) where the urine is heated and subjected to sub-ambient pressure. As water is removed, the original organics, salts, and minerals in the urine become more concentrated and result in urine brine. Eventually, water removal will concentrate the urine brine to super saturation of individual constituents, and precipitation occurs. Under typical UPA DA operating conditions, calcium sulfate or gypsum is the first chemical to precipitate in substantial quantity. During preflight testing with ground urine, the UPA achieved 85% water recovery without precipitation.

However, on ISS, it is possible that crewmember urine can be significantly more concentrated relative to urine from ground donors. As a result, gypsum precipitated in the DA when operating at water recovery rates at or near 85%, causing the failure and subsequent replacement of the DA. Later investigations have demonstrated that an excess of calcium and sulfate will cause precipitation at water recovery rates greater than 70%. The source of the excess calcium is likely physiological in nature, via crewmembers’ bone loss, while the excess sulfate is primarily due to the sulfuric acid component of the urine pretreatment. To prevent gypsum precipitation in the UPA, the Precipitation Prevention Project (PPP) team has focused on removing the calcium ion from pretreated urine, using ion exchange resins as calcium removal agents. The selectivity and effectiveness of ion exchange resins are determined by such factors as the mobility of the liquid phase through the polymer matrix, the density of functional groups, type of functional groups bound to the matrix, and the chemical characteristics of the liquid phase (pH, oxidation potential, and ionic strength).

Previous experience with ion exchange resins has demonstrated that the most effective implementation for an ion exchange resin is a cartridge, or column, in which the resin is contained. Based on the results of equilibrium and sub-scale dynamic column testing, a possible solution for mitigating the calcium precipitation issue on the ISS has been identified. From an original pool of 13 ion exchange resins, two candidates have been identified that demonstrate substantial calcium removal on the sub-scale. The dramatic reduction in resin performance from published calcium uptake demonstrates the need for thorough evaluation of resins at the low pH and strong oxidizing environment present in the UPA. Chemical variations in the influent (calcium concentrations and pretreatment dosing) appear to have a noticeable impact on the calcium capacity of the resin. Low calcium concentrations and high pretreatment dosing will likely result in a decrease in calcium capacity. Conversely, low pretreatment dosing will likely result in an increase in calcium capacity. In contrast, investigations at a variety of flow rates, length-to-diameter ratios, resin volumes, and flow regimes (continuous versus pulsed) show that changes in physical parameters do not have substantial impacts on resin performance in the very low specific velocity ranges of interest. This result is particularly useful because most commercial applications at higher specific velocities do show a relatively strong relationship between flow and capacity. The lack of a strong relationship will allow more flexibility in the implementation of an ion exchange bed for flight. Verification of subscale tests with flight-scale resin beds is recommended prior to implementation in the on-orbit UPA.

This work was done by Julie Mitchell, James Broyan, and Karen Pickering of Johnson Space Center. MSC-25338-1

NASA Tech Briefs Magazine

This article first appeared in the September, 2013 issue of NASA Tech Briefs Magazine.

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