Improving Sanitation and Health in Rural Alaska

Personal health in rural Alaskan communities is threatened by energy costs and limited access to clean water, wastewater management, and adequate nutrition. Fuel-based energy systems are significant factors in determining local accessibility to clean water, sanitation, and food. Increasing fuel costs induce a scarcity of access and impact residents’ health. The University of Alaska Fairbanks School of Natural Resources and Agricultural Sciences (SNRAS), NASA Ames Research Center, and the USDA Agricultural Research Service (ARS) have joined forces to develop high-efficiency, low energy-consuming techniques for water treatment and food production in rural circumpolar communities. Methods intended for the exploration of space and the establishment of settlements on the moon or Mars will ultimately benefit Earth’s communities in the circumpolar north.

In the initial phase of collaboration, funded by USDA ARS, researchers from NASA Ames and SNRAS tested a simple, reliable, low-energy sewage treatment system to recycle wastewater for use in food production and other reuse options in communities. The system extracted up to 70% of the water from sewage and rejected up to 92% of ions in the sewage with no carryover of toxic effects. Biological testing shows that plant growth using recovered water in the nutrient solution was equivalent to that using high-purity distilled water.

With successful demonstration that the low energy-consuming wastewater treatment system can provide safe water for communities and food production, the team is ready to move forward to a full-scale production testbed. The SNRAS/NASA Ames team will design a prototype to match water processing rates and food production to meet rural community sanitation needs and nutritional preferences. This system will be operated at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, where long-term performance will be validated and the operational needs of the system determined. The testbed will be part of the university education and operator training program.

“Forgotten Alaska” has long awaited this technology to augment the traditional subsistence network and maintain healthy living in the circumpolar north.