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Most Innovative Use of RFID: Solving NASA's Water Problem

RFID temperature sensors could make the International Space Station's Urine Processor Assembly more efficient, potentially saving millions of dollars annually.
By Michael Belfiore
Jun 24, 2015

NASA has a weight problem. It costs $10,000 to lift a pound of payload—flight crew, scientific instruments and other cargo—into orbit. Every gallon of water carried to the International Space Station costs roughly $80,000. It's estimated an astronaut consumes $28 million worth of water during a yearlong stint on the station.

Shipping all that water into space would be inefficient, so since 2008, station astronauts have been drinking water reclaimed from urine, via the Urine Processor Assembly (UPA). The Distillation Assembly (DA), a keg-size unit at the heart of the UPA, distills water from urine, which passes into the device from the station's toilets. The rotating, electrically heated DA separates the water from the chemically treated waste; the water is then treated in another piece of equipment, the Water Processor Assembly. Astronauts report the water tastes no different from any other distilled water.

Phase IV engineer Bill Simms spent several weeks developing the right technique for installing RIFD sensor tags on the Distillation Assembly's inner drum.
The UPA reclaims roughly 75 percent of the water from astronauts' urine, saving NASA and its international partners millions of dollars annually. That figure is expected to go up to 85 percent this year. But it still costs NASA more than $40,000 to ship a 2-liter bottle of water to the station. An unmanned Russian Progress resupply ship sends up approximately $9 million worth of water every few months. NASA engineers at the Marshall Space Flight Center, in Huntsville, Ala., asked: How much more weight—and money—could we save if we made the UPA even more efficient?

To answer that question, the engineers at Marshall needed better data on the temperatures generated by the DA. To get that data, they had to place temperature sensors inside the unit, where the spinning inner drum, high temperatures, near vacuum and caustic liquids would destroy ordinary temperature probes. And even if the probes could survive such a harsh environment, gathering temperature data from them could prove equally challenging.

In October 2014, NASA's engineers met these challenges with the help of Phase IV Engineering, an RFID and wireless sensor provider based in Boulder, Colo., and began collecting the data they need from a test DA at Marshall. The solution involves resin-encased passive RFID sensor tags attached to the device's titanium inner walls, custom-designed antennas and an external reader. The data collected could lead to both increased efficiency for the UPA on the space station and improved urine-distillation designs for future spacecraft. Ultimately, better data on the systems used in space to recycle water could benefit water-reclamation efforts proposed or in use in drought-stricken areas on Earth.

An Out-of-the-Ordinary Solution
From the beginning, it was clear that current instrumentation would not work to collect data from the interior of the DA. The unit's heated outer jacket remains stationary, but the inner drum rotates at 220 revolutions per minute, ruling out wired temperature sensors. That factor alone led the NASA engineers to conclude that only RFID technology could get the job done. "Wireless operation was essential for us, since running cables in the system would be practically impossible," says Christopher Evans, an aerospace technologist leading the team.

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