ERDC’s Environmental Laboratory’s graphene research leads to a collaboration with NASA

U.S. Army Engineer Research and Development Center
Published Nov. 27, 2023
Luke Gurtowski, a research chemical engineer with ERDC’s Environmental Engineering Branch (EL), pours graphene while researching the benefits of the nanomaterial.

Luke Gurtowski, a research chemical engineer with ERDC’s Environmental Engineering Branch (EL), pours graphene while researching the benefits of the nanomaterial.

Vicksburg, Miss.— Scientists and engineers from the U.S. Army Engineer Research and Development Center's (ERDC) Environmental Laboratory (EL) are conducting research that could lead to sustaining and advancing technology more efficiently and at a lower cost, both on Earth and in space.

Luke Gurtowski, an EL research chemical engineer, is working with his team to study graphene, a nanomaterial that can be blended into various technologies to provide mechanical, electrical or environmental benefits.

ERDC-EL’s graphene research has attracted the attention of NASA, leading to a collaboration with the agency to investigate the use of novel graphene materials as high-capacity absorbents for the removal of spacecraft water contaminants.  The goal of the project is to facilitate crewed exploration of the moon and Mars by significantly reducing the need for consumables, spare parts, and tools, that are typically required to achieve high levels of water recovery in space.

“Graphene-based materials are being investigated and compared against NASA’s current state of the art water filtration media to determine if these advanced materials may have benefit,” said Gurtowski. “The supply of water is a critical element of crewed space exploration.  Technologies which can lower the cost and ease the logistics of water resupply are needed to better enable long duration space missions.” 

With the help of graphene, the need for resupply and component sparing could be significantly reduced, explained Dr. Christopher Griggs, an EL senior research physical scientist.

“Advanced technologies, such as graphene, can enhance the usable lifetime of absorptive media used in water treatment, reducing the need for replacement, and lowering the logistics and cost associated with resupply. Additionally, graphene could provide for the design of smaller onboard water treatment systems, potentially freeing up more usable area within spacecrafts. Ultimately, the application of enhanced materials and technologies are expected to allow crewed missions to deeper regions of space.”

Graphene-enhanced water treatment systems may one day be used to help extend future space missions, and Griggs believes that graphene-assisted technology may lead to safer intergalactic explorations.

“The ability to safely recover and recycle water is critical to support any long-term mission in space,” said Griggs. “Novel multifunctional materials that can remove contaminants and prevent fouling are essential for better operational efficiency.”

Studying graphene has enlightened Griggs on how useful the technology could be in other facets of life.

“Working on tough challenges drives innovation, and it is gratifying when we can help provide solutions,” said Griggs. “We are experiencing many water issues worldwide, and if a new technology works in space, it could work anywhere.”

Gurtowski explained how graphene use could be a game-changing technological tool in society.

“Graphene can be added to concrete to increase its strength or cell phone batteries to promote more rapid recharging capability,” said Gurtowski. “Research from ERDC-EL has proven that graphene can also more effectively remove organic contaminants from water bodies than current technologies in which absorption is the treatment mechanism. Filter cartridges for water pitchers and faucets bought at local grocery markets typically use charcoal or activated carbon for absorptive filtration, as activated carbon is the industry standard for home and municipal use. However, graphene has been proven to provide higher removal capacities than activated carbon for certain contaminants. So, this environmental benefit suggests that graphene could be utilized to upgrade existing water-treatment processes to enhance efficiency or capability.”

The collaboration, according to Gurtowski, between ERDC and NASA will continue, allowing both entities to discover potentially groundbreaking uses for graphene.

“NASA is leading experimentation and developing models for future technologies and enhanced materials implementing graphene,” said Gurtowski. “ERDC is providing materials in addition to guidance on new material development and utilization as part of the evaluation and prototype design process. We are honored to have a collaboration with NASA, as we have been able to utilize the world-class capabilities from both organizations to provide technologies for sustained human health and enhanced space exploration.”