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Thinking inside the globe: NASA’s Earth-friendly solutions

As the Vision for Space Exploration challenges NASA to venture into the cosmos and start colonies on other planets, the Agency must remember its responsibility to keep Earth clean for future generations. These are just a few of the technology spinoffs created from NASA’s environmentally friendly innovations.

Belgian Flight Engineer Frank DeWinne is pictured near a plant growth experiment in the Zvezda Service Module on the International Space Station in November 2002.
Belgian Flight Engineer Frank DeWinne is pictured near a plant growth experiment in the Zvezda Service Module on the International Space Station in November 2002.
Cosmic gardeners
For three years, astronauts aboard the International Space Station have been conducting research to reduce or eliminate lignin production. Plants need lignin to stand upright under the force of Earth’s gravity. This chemical must be removed to produce paper, which is a costly and environmentally harmful process. The Space Station’s gravity-free environment has helped scientists learn how to reduce the lignin content of plants, which could decrease pollution associated with producing paper.

Sparkling smokestacks and cleaner cars
A new method of lowering smokestack and automobile emissions is just one of NASA’s technology innovations currently being licensed to private companies. This process of reducing formaldehyde and carbon-monoxide in smokestack emissions was originally developed to affect the oxidation of carbon-monoxide, a by-product of carbon-dioxide lasers, in space. The Low-Temperature Oxidation Catalysts (LTOC) can reduce toxic smoke stack emissions up to 95 percent and meets California’s Environmental Protection Agency vehicle emission requirements.
--Spinoff 2004

Toxic waste goes green
In NASA’s quest to eliminate hazardous waste, they have found a way to turn toxic byproducts into some of the purest fertilizer commercially available. When transferring toxic oxidizer from storage tanks into rockets, nitric acid is produced. Nitric acid is then neutralized with potassium hydroxide and turns into potassium nitrate - one of the primary ingredients in fertilizer. Phoenix Systems International Inc. has partnered with NASA and anticipates applying the technology to at least 40 percent of coal, oil, and gas-fired boilers in the US.
--Spinoff 2003

Growing tomatoes from trash
With research assistance from NASA, scientists from three universities found that biogases produced by decomposing trash can fulfill the needs of a space-age greenhouse. Methane, the primary emission, is piped into the greenhouse boiler and used to fuel the hot water heating system and generate electricity. This system takes only 90 days to germinate and produce a tomato harvest. The garden can produce ten times the amount of tomatoes grown outdoors in a similar space or 10 pounds of tomatoes per square foot per year with no pesticides used.
--Spinoff 2001

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SmartPlugs slash pollution
The SmartPlug is a self-contained ignition system that can be used on spark-ignition and compression-ignition engines. The SmartPlug only needs six watts of power to warm up, does not require electricity while the engine is running, has no moving parts, and enables an engine to run on a water and alcohol mixture instead of oil and gas. The plug can be used on automobiles, tractors, portable generators, compressors, lawn mowers, boats and planes.
--Spinoff 2001

Pure water and pristine landfills
Using technology originally developed for water purification aboard the Space Station, Osmotek, Inc. developed the Direct Osmosis treatment system that extracts water from waste products using both direct and reverse osmosis processes. This system extracts the water, turning the toxic substance into a solid. This system is currently used in landfills to prevent harmful pollutants from entering the surrounding ecosystem and water supply.
--Spinoff 2000

Oil-eating organisms
Petroleum Remediation Product is used to clean up oil spills without further pollution of the ecosystem. Oil flows through thousands of microcapsules and is consumed by the microorganisms. The system also uses enzymes to prevent contaminated water from spreading.
--Spinoff 1994

NASA’s Office of Technology Transfer and Commercialization licenses dozens of space-age technologies and connects with the private sector through business-to-business partnerships for the creation of products that improve lives here on Earth.

For additional information about NASA’s spinoffs visit:

Mari Pillar
Johnson Space Center, Houston
(281) 483-9486

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Updated: 04/26/2004