Photo credits: ESA/IPEV/PNRA–B. Healey
Antarctica is a place of extremes – a continent of snow and ice that also has the largest desert in the world. In areas where water freezes instantly there is so little rain (or snow) that it is technically a desert.
The conditions are so other-worldly that the European Space Agency sends a medical doctor to the French–Italian Antarctic base Concordia each year to study how researchers living on the ice adapt to the cold, lack of regular daylight and low oxygen found at Concordia research station. Just like on the International Space Station and spacecraft further afield keeping a fresh supply of water and managing waste water is an engineering feat in itself.
At Concordia where the closest living beings are 600 km away, they boil the snow to make drinking water but the snow does not contain minerals and it can quickly become contaminated. Nutrients are added to the water for health reasons and it is treated with UV light as a safety measure.
The Antarctic treaty stipulates that no waste must be left behind on the continent whereas it takes two weeks to reach the coast from Concordia. Any waste transport that can be avoided has huge benefits for the convoy of tractors that make the traverse each year – water is recycled to the maximum.
To understand the water situation in Concordia you need to know your water types: ‘grey water’ is runoff from washing such as when taking a shower or washing food and hands. Next comes ‘yellow water’ which is commonly known as urine. Lastly the so-called ‘black water’ is aptly named as it comes from organic waste and faecal matter. An average human being will produce between 2 and 20 litres of grey water (depending on the length of their shower), 1.5 litres of yellow water and 0.2 litres of black water every day.
As humans produce mostly grey water, the European Space Agency has investigated recycling grey water for its astronauts for over 20 years. A prototype facility that fits in a standard shipping container was installed at Concordia in 2005 and uses ceramic filters and reverse-osmosis to turn grey water into clean water.
The system works so well that elements of it are being used at a University in Morocco, by monks in Belgium and soon at a hotel in France to reduce waste and reliance on natural fresh water.