Oxygen from algae wins Cranfield student cash prize in national space competition

An MSc student from Cranfield University has won £200 for proposing algae as a source of oxygen for astronauts on-board the International Space Station.


Will Blackler, a Cranfield University astronautics and space engineering student won the prize as part of Airbus’ annual National Student Space Competition.

Algae grows up to 25g/m2 each day, a rate that means an initial small supply could last for months. Given that plants are a well-known source of oxygen, Will suggested that green materials such as algae could be harvested for oxygen.

Currently, the ISS relies on oxygen supplies from earth, which are generated through water.

Will said: “I developed the idea over a month, and definitely didn’t expect to come this far. It’s a privilege to have won the competition.

“As well as algae being low mass; a source of oil and protein; and easy to maintain, it creates very little waste product which would save astronauts taking lots of extra equipment with them to the International Space Station.”

The idea is in its initial stages and Will is in the process of analysing key challenges of introducing algae as the sole source of oxygen in the ISS. For example, the algae would require a large, lit-up area to grow. Simultaneously, Will has been looking at potential solutions such as using the algae’s outer lining to his advantage. The flexible, thin film allows the algae to be folded, stacked or rolled up into tubes, enabling the plant to fit into a confined space, provided that it is well-illuminated.

Will started exploring the possibility of generating oxygen from algae as part of a wider project that he is working on with seven other Cranfield students. The Mars Flyby Project is looking at the physical challenges of sending two people to Mars and at the psychological issues that would arise during the 580-day journey.