Science says waste beer could help us live on Mars

Any project that starts with beer and ends with colonizing Mars has our attention. At its highest level, that describes new research coming out of the University of Colorado at Boulder — where scientists have developed a new super-insulating gel, created from beer waste, which could one day prove useful for building greenhouse-like habitats for Mars colonists.

“The Smalyukh Research Group at the University of Colorado Boulder has developed a super-insulating, ultra-light, and ultra-transparent aerogel film,” Ivan Smalyukh, a professor in the Department of Physics, told Digital Trends. “Aerogels are extremely porous solid objects that are made mostly from air, and are about 100 times less dense than glass panes. Our aerogel is made from nanocellulose, which is grown by bacteria that eat waste beer wort, a waste byproduct of the beer industry.”

The cellulose enables the researchers’ aerogel to be very flexible and durable. It can be produced very cheaply, and means the team can precisely control the individual size of particles which make up its solid structure. This lets the material allow light to pass through it without significant scattering.

“Our immediate real world use-case is to use our aerogel product to dramatically increase the efficiency of windows in homes and commercial buildings,” Andrew Hess, another researcher on the project, told us. “Replacing inefficient windows is a costly and difficult endeavor, especially for buildings with structural or historical constraints. We aim to commercialize a peel-and-stick retrofitting aerogel film for windows which will effectively turn single-pane into double-pane windows — all at an affordable cost well below that of replacing the windows.”

However, the team also has more far-flung ambitions for their research. The project was recently named one of the winners of NASA’s 2018 iTech competition, which aims to reward technologies that could one day be used to help people travel to space.

“Extraterrestrial habitats will face extreme temperature fluctuations which must be eliminated inside the habitat,” Smalyukh said. “We see our aerogel product as a prime way to accomplish this, additionally allowing for the harvesting and storage of solar energy inside of habitats because these aerogels are transparent to sunlight. Because our aerogel can be made from waste, space colonizers wouldn’t necessarily have to bring the aerogel with them from Earth, which would be expensive. Instead, they could grow, from waste, [and] with the help of bacteria, aerogels to be used in habitats.”

At present, the researchers have demonstrated the aerogel at a proof-of-concept level; creating 6.5-inch aerogels with proven transparency, durability, and insulating characteristics. Next, they plan to come up with a means to scale manufacturing in a way that will make the technology affordable to all.

A paper describing the research was recently published in the journal Nano Energy.

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