By Tom Ballard, Chief Alliance Officer, PYA
Have you ever thought about the challenges involved in the handling or disposal of toilet system waste at the International Space Station? Well, quite frankly, we had not either until an interview for this article, but we quickly learned that it is a costly process every time a toilet is flushed.
Oh, by the way, you cannot flush the toilet in space due to the absence of gravity!
Fortunately, a Knoxville-based start-up might have just the answer that NASA and others need as space exploration and plans to visit other planets increases.
Ultrasonic Technology Solutions LLC, founded by Ayyoub Momen and spotlighted in this April 2020 article in teknovation.biz, has been awarded a $760,000, two-year Small Business Innovation Research grant from the federal agency to design the next generation of a space toilet system. The work is the latest in a series of positive developments for the company that licensed a technology Momen developed and is now commercializing.
“When NASA saw our technology, they became really interested in what we were doing,” the former researcher at Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL) told us in a recent interview. Momen had developed the technology to improve household clothes dryers and secured a license to apply the technology for commercial and industrial drying applications.
Now on entrepreneurial leave from ORNL to devote full-time to growing the company, Momen explained that solid and liquid waste on the Space Station must either be repurposed or stored until it can be transported back to earth. NASA has technologies that allow the International Space Station (ISS) to recycle and reuse 90 percent of its water, more than 1,000 gallons annually which also includes urine. The rest comes up in supply missions that is expensive. Currently, there is a critical need to deal with solid excrement, particularly in removing and potentially safely reusing the liquid portion.
That’s where Ultrasonic Technology Solution’s system offers great potential. It uses something called a piezoelectric transducer and the high frequency vibration that the transducer produces to remove the water, similar to the shaking action of a dog after leaving a body of water.
Calling the project both a “hygiene and comfort” initiative, Momen said the need for a way to reduce the volume and weight “becomes more severe as we get farther from human earth” through efforts like those of Elon Musk and his SpaceX project.
Ultrasonic Technology Solutions’ book of other business is growing, too. “A couple of other projects are applying our technology to industrial textile, pulp and paper and drywall material to what is a very slow process to extract water,” he says. In addition to the time involved, the process is also very energy intensive.
“I have to be sure not to lose focus,” Momen says as he explores a somewhat diverse set of industry sectors that have one thing in common – a need to extract water. “Extracting water from wet material without heat, that is what we are extremely good at.”
Momen hopes to have the start-up’s initial MVP (minimum viable product) available within the next month or two at which time he may need to explore venture or angel funding. Thus far, he has relied on the grant award along with self-funding.