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NASA Testing Breakthrough In Water Safety 60

Posted by samzenpus
from the advanced-smell-test dept.
Jerry James Stone writes "NASA and University of Utah chemists are developing advanced tech for testing the drinkability of water. The process just began a six-month run aboard the International Space Station. Water will be sampled either from the Space Station's or Shuttle's galley using a syringe. It is then forced through a chemically-imbued membrane, which changes color based on toxicity. The process itself will take about two minutes. It checks drinking water for iodine and silver, which are used to kill unwanted microbes."
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NASA Testing Breakthrough In Water Safety

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  • by SultanCemil (722533) on Thursday September 17, 2009 @08:03AM (#29452189)
    How does checking for iodine and silver check for water safety? Also - proofreading would be nice - "which are to used kill..."? My god what do we pay editors for?
    • Re: (Score:3, Funny)

      by Jurily (900488)

      I believe the procedure is as follows:

      1. Get someone to drink before you.
      2. Wait for them to die.

      • by Ant P. (974313)

        3. If they survive but with a severe mental handicap, promote them to editor.

      • I believe the procedure is as follows:

        1. Get someone to drink before you.
        2. Wait for them to die.

        Disclaimer: May not work for toxins that take more than 5 days [wikipedia.org] of exposure to kill the subject.

        • Disclaimer: May also not work for water that isn't poisoned...

          1. Get someone to drink before you.
          2. Wait for them to die.
          3. ???
          4. Don't profit.

    • Re:Water Safety? (Score:4, Informative)

      by Zantac69 (1331461) on Thursday September 17, 2009 @08:47AM (#29452439) Journal
      Its a pretty common test in drinking water plants to do a "residual" test. In the US, they normally check for residual chlorine in the water as it leave the drinking water plant - as residual chlorine = no bacteria (for the most part). They also send inspectors out periodically and actually test the water at the 'end of the line' to ensure there is a chlorine residual. On the space station/shuttle, they iodine and silver are easier to handle than chlorine and are used in combination to disinfect the water...so a residual of both should mean that any bacteria/viruses have been removed. Of course this does not address the removal of soluble organics and other contaminants...but those are a bit easier to remove than critters.
      • Of course this does not address the removal of [...] other contaminants.

        You mean like chlorine, iodine and silver? ^^

        • Those aren't contaminants, and needn't be removed unless they're present at dangerously high levels.

    • According to the article, they drink reprocessed water (piss that has been cleaned) while in space. The test measures the levels of iodine and silver, because the US uses iodine to treat the water, and the Russians use silver. If the measured levels aren't the necessary levels to make the water safe to drink, they will adjust the water processing system.

    • by Thanshin (1188877)

      How does checking for iodine and silver check for water safety?

      1 - put enough iodine and silver to kill everything.
      2 - Test if you put too much iodine.

    • Re: (Score:1, Funny)

      by Anonymous Coward

      I think they check for silver to make sure it is drinkable for werewolves.

    • It checks drinking water for iodine and silver which are to used kill unwanted microbes.

      Also - proofreading would be nice - "which are to used kill..."? My god what do we pay editors for?

      I don't see anything wrong with the sentence (except perhaps a missing comma after the word silver). Would you explain the problem, please.

    • Also - proofreading would be nice - "which are to used kill..."? My god what do we pay editors for?

      Actually, that's a grammatical error present in the article. Sure, the Slashdot editors could have fixed it, but the treehugger.com editors should have fixed it first.

    • by stockard (1431131)
      Consuming too much silver can turn your skin blue [wikipedia.org], kinda like this guy [katu.com]. It's not really harmful, but since most people don't want to look like smurfs, you don't want too much of it in your water.
    • My god what do we pay editors for?

      Here at slashdot I'm paying them altogether too much!

  • Overstated much? (Score:4, Interesting)

    by MadAnalyst (959778) on Thursday September 17, 2009 @08:06AM (#29452199)
    The device checks for disinfectant (Ag or I). That is neat and all, but I wouldn't go for a "breakthrough in water safety." Sure, disinfectant means fewer bugs in the water. I won't say that isn't one good indicator of safer drinking water. But there is a host of atomic and molecular toxins that the device does nothing about. The EPA regulates for about 20 different things, bacteria being only a small part of it.
    • Re:Overstated much? (Score:4, Informative)

      by Chrisq (894406) on Thursday September 17, 2009 @08:11AM (#29452229)
      My guess is that it addresses a specific concern on the space station. Someone has determined that there is a single point of failure that could leave unsafe residual amounts of treatment chemicals in the water. So this is a breakthrough but only for people with a very specific problem.
      • The original press release [utah.edu] doesn't describe it as a "breakthrough". My guess is, that someone at treehugger.com determined that ad-revenue was their single greatest point of failure. So my guess is that this is a breakthrough but only for people with a very specific business model.
      • Totally agreed. I work in the water treatment industry, and this story is completely irrelevant to the process we're using (chloramination).

        It's standard practice to test for your disinfection residual. The thing that interests me is the iodine/silver disinfection, not testing for the residual.

    • The device checks for disinfectant (Ag or I). That is neat and all, but I wouldn't go for a "breakthrough in water safety."

      Exactly. From the headline/intro, I thought it was about to claim some mechanism for guaranteeing removal of every molecule except H2O, or something like that.

      • by Thanshin (1188877)

        Exactly. From the headline/intro, I thought it was about to claim some mechanism for guaranteeing removal of every molecule except H2O, or something like that.

        Like a really tiny shark. Blasting away everything that's not a water molecule, with his tiny fricking lasers.

      • Already been done [wikipedia.org]

        Alternatively, you could always send up astronauts with an iStraw [istraw.co.uk]
        • Spoke to a marine biologist friend who thinks the iStraw is more of a health hazard that'll contaminate water than a purification option. Just read all the caveats on the site.

    • by guywcole (984149)

      91 things (right now) PLUS microbes in our primary regs, to be specific. There are also secondary standards for taste/odor and color.

      (I work in EPA's drinking water office.)

    • by xirusmom (815129)
      Actually, the Clean Water Act regulates over a hundred water pollutants and if you want to know what is in your water, you can check this [nytimes.com] compilation from the New York Times, as well as their very good articles about water toxicity [nytimes.com]. Funny thing: yesterday I accessed both articles directly, today they are requiring free registration. I think it is still worth it.
  • by lordandmaker (960504) on Thursday September 17, 2009 @08:10AM (#29452219) Homepage

    So it's less a test of it's drinkability as one of whether it's yet been processed into drinkable water?

    I was hoping for something that'd be useful to people in remote places who want to drink out of a river. I know the article mentions spin-offs for bangladesh.

    • Hmmm. Let see. There are many processes to clean up water. Many of them now involve membranes. They get overused and sometimes minor holes are introduced. That would allow the water to QUIETLY be contaminated. Here is a test that will show whether the sieve is working or not. And you, as well as the person that modded you up, think that a simple test to show if water is clean is stupid. Seriously?
      • Re: (Score:3, Interesting)

        by clone53421 (1310749)

        The test won't show whether the sieve is working, it'll just show whether you put the right number of iodine droplets in your bucket of filtered river water. Yeah, this is about as innovative as those paper strips you use to check the chlorine level in your pool.

        • by mpe (36238)
          The test won't show whether the sieve is working, it'll just show whether you put the right number of iodine droplets in your bucket of filtered river water. Yeah, this is about as innovative as those paper strips you use to check the chlorine level in your pool.

          The concentration in a pool is rather higher than for drinking water, since people don't swim in drinking water. Some pool systems use bromine. In theory you could use iodine but it would be far more expensive.
          • I'm aware that the disinfection agent and concentration are different in a swimming pool. The concept is no different, though. It's a simple and quick colorimetric gauge of the residual level.

            Pools can also be disinfected with salts, by the way.

  • by rossdee (243626) on Thursday September 17, 2009 @08:49AM (#29452457)

    So when NASA finally gets to Mars, they'll be able to test the water in the (chinese built) hotel and see if iits fit to drink.

  • Um, what are they going to do if the drinking water on the ISS shows up as toxic? It's not like they can get any more in a hurry. If my drinking water was tainted, I'd rather not know about it if I was in their situation I think. There might be some kind of placebo effect where simply knowing your drinking water is tainted might induce nausea.

    • by drinkypoo (153816)

      Maybe they just whip out a Katadyn filter :P

      • Your login name is unusually apt in this article I have to admit. I suspect any remedy for bad water in terms of filtering should already be happening. Prevention is better than cure.

    • by mpe (36238)
      Um, what are they going to do if the drinking water on the ISS shows up as toxic? It's not like they can get any more in a hurry.

      If they have fuel cells on board these provide pure water independent of the recycling system. There are also at least two separate water recycling systems on board. If all else fails the crew can return to Earth.
  • Have a glass of piss to celebrate [youtube.com] "Do we even have a machine!?"
  • Is there some aspect of this process that could conceivably be affected by microgravity? If not, the ISS is awfully expensive lab space.
  • by clone53421 (1310749) on Thursday September 17, 2009 @10:32AM (#29453309) Journal

    They aren't testing toxicity, they're testing for effective disinfection (by ensuring there is the correct residual disinfectant remaining in the water). That's pretty uninteresting, actually. It's standard practice to test for a disinfection residual in the water treatment industry.

    Common disinfectants are chlorine (either gaseous or in hypochlorites, e.g. sodium hypochlorite = liquid bleach, or calcium hypochlorite which is in the form of solid granules or tablets), chloramines (a chlorine/ammonia compound), ozone, and ultraviolet. Ultraviolet, of course, is a one-time hit and leaves no residual disinfecting agent in the water. Ozone dissipates quite rapidly, so the residual is gone in a short matter of time. Chlorine dissipates over the course of several days, while chloramines stay in the water for several weeks. Large water systems typically need a disinfectant which will stay in the water for several days or weeks, because it takes that long for the water to travel from the treatment plant out through the piping system to the edges of the distribution region. You have to have an adequate disinfectant residual even at the edges of your system in order to prevent microbial growth inside your pipes.

    Frankly, I'm very not-impressed with TFA. This is somewhat better [dailyutahchronicle.com], it at least explains the disinfection process and why they need to test for these two substances (iodine and silver):

    NASA uses iodine as a disinfectant on U.S. space crafts, and Russians use pure-silver nanoparticles that at low levels are non-toxic, but it's a balancing act. If the levels of iodine and silver in the water are too low, microbes will grow, Porter said. Levels of iodine that are too high result in bad-tasting water that the astronauts will not drink, putting them at risk for dehydration. A long-term effect of drinking an excess of iodine is the possibility of developing thyroid problems. Excess levels of silver can permanently turn the skin a grayish-blue color.

    Of course, if you really want the low-down on the process, you get it from NASA's website [nasa.gov]...

    • by gbjbaanb (229885)

      Ultraviolet, of course, is a one-time hit and leaves no residual disinfecting agent in the water

      Now where would they get large amounts of free UV radiation from in space..... :)

  • As long as they leave the *wanted microbes* alone.

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