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BioHarvest, Biorat 1 and GreenLung - breaking new ground in life support and air quality

Marie Vandermies

The Micro-Ecological Life Support System Alternative initiative (MELiSSA), led by by the European Space Agency, aims to supply astronauts on long space missions with oxygen, water and food from waste recycling.


Spirulina is a cyanobacterium recognised for its high nutritional value. This photosynthetic organism feeds on carbon dioxide and releases oxygen as a result. For these reasons, it is studied by a number of MELiSSA projects for its capacity to refresh the ambient air in space installations and to serve as astronaut food.

Following ARTEMISS success (first photobioreactor demonstration on-board the International Space Station), QinetiQ, together with CAPACITÉS SAS and the AlgoSolis R&D Facility, will tackle the essential issue of harvesting spirulina at the outlet of the production unit. The harvesting system has to deliver fresh, non-contaminated microalgae suitable as food, and be compatible with microgravity conditions. QinetiQ and CAPACITÉS SAS are therefore joining their respective expertise in space projects and microalgae cultivation and harvesting to bring this project to a successful completion.

Biorat 1 is another project using spirulina. Currently in phase B1,it is collaborative project involving RUAG in Switzerland as prime contractor, Sherpa in France, and QinetiQ here in Belgium. The system is using the spirulina to convert carbon dioxide from air exhaled by humans back to oxygen. The Biorat 1 breadboard comprises three subsystems - the Gas Loop, the Liquid Loop, and the Solid Loop. We have responsibility for the development and testing of the Solid Loop subsystem and the global Control System and Electronics (CSE) to control the Gas, Liquid and Solid Loops.

The Gas Loop takes carbon dioxide from ambient air and releases oxygen, and the Liquid Loop is responsible for biomass cultivation where the conversion of carbon dioxide to oxygen occurs. The Solid Loop has a double function. Not only does it filter harvest supernumerary biomass from the Liquid Loop to help maintain a steady biomass concentration, its storage volume also gradually releases nutrients to the Liquid Loop to keep the biomass healthy and nourished.

Anyone visiting QinetiQ’s offices over the past few months may have witnessed some of our development work in connection with the Solid Loop - notably an illuminated bottle filled with a bubbling green mixture (our precious biomass!), loud noises, full PPE during the steam sterilisation cycles and the release of the bright blue filtrate from the Solid Loop. It has certainly been an exciting project to work on and the final functional test of the system is now running. On completion of the Post-Test Review, the Solid Loop and associated CSE will be shipped to Switzerland for integration with the Gas and Liquid Loops.

Negotiations for the future of Biorat 1 (phase B2 and 3, C, D) are ongoing, but the programme has already paved the way for a number of other significant projects. These include Green Lung. This is the proof-of-concept project that started at end of summer following its selection by ESA in the frame of their annual ITT for technology demonstration. This is a terrestrial application of the technology developed for Biorat 1 and features a column bioreactor being placed in the corner of one of QinetiQ’s meeting rooms to purify ambient air (including the conversion of carbon dioxide to oxygen).

Due to lower meeting room occupancy during the global pandemic, most of the carbon dioxide in the ambient air will be generated by artificial injections. However, all QinetiQ colleagues are welcome to pop by and provide feedback on this technology demonstrator, as design aesthetics and end-user experience are important elements of the GreenLung project. Stay tuned for the “open house” dates!