A University of Calgary team has flushed the competition with a project that sets out to convert astronaut poop into handy tools, while also cutting down on flying bags of feces masquerading as shooting stars.

Schulich School of Engineering student Alina Kunitskaya, and Sam Wilton-Clark, a health sciences student, are part of the team that just brought back a gold medal from the International Genetically Engineered Machine Foundation's giant jamboree in Boston.

Their winning project was called Astroplastic: From Colon to Colony.

Sam Wilton-Clark, Alina Kunitskaya

Sam Wilton-Clark, left, and Alina Kunitskaya, students at the University of Calgary, used fake poop in their project, made from a recipe created by NASA. (David Bell-CBC/Submitted by Alina Kunitskaya)

"There's a huge issue with transporting materials to Mars. How do you account for everything astronauts might need over three years? Waste management is another huge issue and we thought maybe we will address both of those," Kunitskaya told The Homestretch.

Wilton-Clark explains the solution the group came up with.

"We modified the DNA of an E. coli bacteria so that it would take acids out of the human poop and actually build a plastic out of it and then spit that plastic out so that we can use it to make tools."

The plastic is used by a 3D printer to create tools such as a wrench or screwdriver.

Fake poop

The NASA-approved fake poop is altered to create white plastic pellets that can be used in a 3D printer to make tools such as a wrench or screwdriver. (Submitted by Alina Kunitskaya)

They didn't actually used human feces but in the process learned that NASA has an official recipe for fake poop, which includes yeast, cellulose, peanut oil and miso paste.

"The tools won't be smelly because by the time we get the plastic out of the system, it's going to be dry and all the smelly components will be removed," Kunitskaya explained.

"The funny thing is, our synthetic poop that we made actually had a quite pleasing smell to it."

Team Calgary

These Calgary students were not satisfied with No. 2. Their project took a gold-medal in a recent science competition in Boston. (Submitted by iGEM 2017 team)

Wilton-Clark didn't totally agree with that aromatic assessment.

"It's a smell only a mother would love," he said.

The project involved interviewing experts at the Canadian Space Agency and NASA and astronauts including Chris Hadfield and Robert Thirsk.

Kunitskaya says if they can swap fake poop for real poop, it could save valuable room on the spacecraft and reduce the need to dispose of solid waste, which is currently just tossed out.

Finished product

Here's a very special wrench. It's made from fake astronaut poop using a 3D printer. (Submitted by Lalit Bharadwaj)

"They remove all the water out of it, package it and basically throw it out into space and it burns upon re-entry. Sometimes when you see a shooting star, it might actually be a bag of poop burning in the atmosphere," she said.

Wilton-Clark says the team isn't done yet.

"We are actually going to test a component of this project in zero gravity using a contest offered by the Canadian Space Agency," he said.


With files from The Homestretch