Professor Invents Water Quality Monitor for Astronauts

NASA-approved device can help monitor water quality aboard the International Space Station

After more than 12 months of testing aboard the International Space Station (ISS), an experimental water quality monitoring kit based on technology developed by USTAR professor Marc D. Porter and University of Utah researcher Lorraine M. Siperko was recently certified as operational hardware by NASA.

The kit, called the Colorimetric Water Quality Monitoring Kit (CWQMK), uses Colorimetric Solid Phase Extraction (CSPE) technology to monitor the biocides molecular iodine and ionic silver in the potable water supply on the ISS.

“Our focus was to develop a small, simple and safe low-cost water testing system that uses a handheld device, doesn't consume materials or generate waste, takes minimal astronaut time and works in microgravity,” Porter said. “It is a complex system with a simple goal: to ensure that our astronauts have safe drinking water in space.”

The kit utilizes a commercially available handheld device that weighs just 1.1 lb and operates on four AA batteries to collect data and provide direct readout of analyte concentration. Complete analyses can be completed in about two minutes, providing the crew a near-real-time indication of whether or not adequate disinfectant levels are present in their drinking water.

“Having been an astronaut myself, I can appreciate the importance of having access to clean water in space,” said Charles Precourt, vice president and general manager, ATK Space Launch Systems, and director of USTAR’s Governing Authority. “This is a milestone achievement not only for USTAR, but for NASA and the future of space travel.”

In addition to acting as a biocide monitor, the CWQMK is also an expandable platform that can be augmented to monitor other water quality parameters. For example, the capability to monitor total iodine compounds (the sum of molecular iodine, iodide and triiodide) was added to the kit during the certification process.

Currently, the vast majority of water quality data from the ISS is obtained through ground analysis of archival samples. With the retirement of the shuttle fleet later this year, the frequency and number of samples returned from ISS will be decreased. Having an adaptable platform like the CWQMK available in orbit has the potential to provide greater insight into water quality when regular archive samples are no longer available.

Porter is the director of The Nano Institute of Utah at the University of Utah. He is also a USTAR professor for the departments of chemistry, chemical engineering, bioengineering and pathology.

Siperko is a research scientist for The Nano Institute of Utah. She is researching the development of nanoanalytical methodologies and their application to nanomaterials, interfacial sciences, nanobiosensors and nanomedicine.