NASA proposes Water Walls to replace mechanical life support systems


September 10, 2012

Lessons learned aboard the International Space Station have contributed to the development of the Water Walls system (Photo: NASA)

Lessons learned aboard the International Space Station have contributed to the development of the Water Walls system (Photo: NASA)

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When they’re living aboard spacecraft, astronauts presently rely on mechanically-driven life support systems. Not only is there a danger of these systems breaking down, but maintenance can be challenging, as they’re always in use. While redundant duplicate systems could take over in such situations, they add to the expense and weight of a spacecraft, and also take up valuable space. Instead, NASA is exploring another possibility – the passive “Water Walls” system, which would use the principle of forward osmosis to perform tasks such as water filtration, air filtration, and even food growth.

As its name implies, Water Walls would be incorporated into the “structural matrix” of the spacecraft – its inner walls, in other words – and would consist of modules of linked and layered cells. These cells would take the form of bags or tanks, made from semi-permeable polyethylene membranes that would draw in water, while filtering out unwanted substances. Some mechanization would still be required, but only to pump waste water to the modules.

There would actually be four types of cells within each module, each one chemically and biologically unique, and each performing different functions. These would include filtering the urine and other contaminants from gray water; filtering solid waste from “black water”; removing carbon dioxide and revitalizing oxygen content in the air; and, growing green algae for food. All four types of cells would also shield the crew from radiation emanating from outside the spacecraft, and help maintain the interior temperature and humidity.

Prior to lift-off, each cell would be primed with water and starter ion solutions. When the waste water then reached the modules, it would pass through each cell in sequence, via a series of valves between them. Once a cell was “exhausted,” it could be easily replaced with a spare, by crew members.

NASA has already experimented with some aspects of the Water Walls system aboard the International Space Station, using a device known as the Forward Osmosis Bag to convert astronaut's urine into a sports drink.

Source: NASA via Dvice

About the Author
Ben Coxworth An experienced freelance writer, videographer and television producer, Ben's interest in all forms of innovation is particularly fanatical when it comes to human-powered transportation, film-making gear, environmentally-friendly technologies and anything that's designed to go underwater. He lives in Edmonton, Alberta, where he spends a lot of time going over the handlebars of his mountain bike, hanging out in off-leash parks, and wishing the Pacific Ocean wasn't so far away. All articles by Ben Coxworth

Pretty amazing how technologies come up, one after the other, that solve water, food- and waste issues on the space station.

Meanwhile on earth, ...

Anyways. Gotta go, have to fill up my Hummer and get some milk.


funny they don't mention a thick water wall to block cosmic wind...perhaps they don't think that worthy of integration?

Walt Stawicki

@ Walt Stawicki

One thing at a time, one thing at a time.

Good idea for a prototype. which this seems to be. Let's see what the second generation of it will be able to do.


This is in fact an excellent idea. I was also having some hunches in this direction but this one finally elaborates on it. Water - in particular when asteroid mining/water recovery from the Moon comes on line - will be the best way to go. People are connected with water-world. Some of our fellow mammals returned to water back after tryst on land. It would be only fitting if people moved closer to their water life-giving millieau on leaving Earth. Perhaps even some slight biological re-engineering of a human person, perhaps switching on/off what you already have in your genes, could place a person w/o damage right in the middle of the water element. I wonder whether that would be possible but it is definitely in some way there may be already solutions available. Some sci-fi authors, like D. Brin, even envision that it is not just humans but also dolphins that will spread the spark of life in the universe. Thick water walls could significantly mitigate irradiation, a major problem in open space. If you build a hollow huge water walled bubble, using the technologies described, you have Gerald O'Neils Sky Islands Second Generation. Perhaps cheaper and more reliable than the hard metal stuff. But let's start small for now. Excellent idea.

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