Orbital Systems makes sustainable water use something people can enjoy



While I was studying industrial design at Lund University, I had the opportunity to go to Johnson Space Center and take part in a project with NASA. The goal was to enable an earthly living standard on Mars.

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Establishing a Mars colony required us to solve a lot of issues related to resource management, given the strict resource limitations.

There are three resources that humans need in addition to oxygen. One is energy, the second is water, and the third is nutrients. I started looking at how we handle resources on Earth, and how we might translate the positive aspects to a new setting without repeating the more foolish aspects.

Every resource has a supply side and a demand side. In the energy sector, we’ve walked a pretty long way on the demand side. A hundred or two hundred years ago, all of our focus in energy was on the supply side: pump up more oil, pump up more gas, produce more. Then around the second oil crisis in the ‘70s, there was a massive realization that we can’t just focus on pumping up more, creating more energy. We need to think about how we use it.

Orbital’s CEO says their system “starts with technical innovation that actually reduces water and energy use and then tracks the savings through a digital interface.”

Fast forward to today, we have much more focus on the demand side. There’s an understanding that we can do a lot more if we just don’t waste the energy we make. Many of the products we buy are energy efficient: fridges, TVs, LED lights.

Then I looked at water and found the way we use water now is practically no different from the Roman aqueducts of 2,000 or 3,000 years ago. We find water somewhere, and if it’s clean, we pump it to houses. If it’s not clean, we treat it first. We haven’t really changed anything since the Romans. I mean, we flush toilets with drinking water. We haven’t done anything to optimize the demand side.

So when it comes to building a new habitat on Mars, what are we not going to do? We’re not going to generate drinking water — which we do out of air, pretty expensive — and then pour it down a drain or flush it down a toilet.

That was the background, back in 2012. At the time, the mission launch was set to 2035 and the shower project was mostly at the conceptual level. I felt there was no reason to wait 20 years to develop a product for eight astronauts when there is an urgent need and much bigger opportunity on Earth.

I moved back to Sweden, where I was born and raised, started Orbital Systems, and got research funding to come up with functioning prototypes. Today we’ve raised north of a hundred million dollars and have a team of almost 100 people.

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