Will Blackler, Cranfield Astronautics and Space Engineering MSc student’s, idea that algae could provide astronauts in the International Space Station (ISS) with oxygen, won him £200 at Airbus’ annual National Student Space Competition last month.

Algae seemed to be the ideal material for oxygen creation in space as it grows up to 25g/m2 (25 grams per metre square) each day. Its fast growth means that an initial small supply could last for months on end. Given that plants are a well-known source of oxygen, Will suggested that green materials such as algae could be harvested for oxygen. Algae is also easy to maintain and can easily double up as food to accompany the typical astronaut’s macaroni, rice and vegetable meals.   Currently, the ISS relies on oxygen supplies from earth, which are generated through water. In fact, half of the oxygen used in the ISS is simply reclaimed from carbon dioxide.

Will commented: “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 - without actually landing on the planet - and at the psychological issues that would arise during the 580-day journey.

About Cranfield University

Cranfield University is a specialist postgraduate university that is a global leader for education and transformational research in technology and management.

Cranfield Aerospace

Cranfield is the number one university in Europe for aerospace. We are the only university in Europe to own and run an airport and to have airline status. We have been at the forefront of aerospace technology for 70 years.

As the UK's most business-engaged University, we have long-term relationships and close commercial partnerships with many companies in the sector including Airbus, BAE Systems, Boeing and Rolls-Royce.

Our education, research and consultancy is enhanced by our world-class facilities including the National Flying Laboratory Centre – a unique national asset which provides a hands-on, flying experience, along with flight deck simulators and industrial-scale gas turbine engine test facilities used for performance and diagnostic studies. The Aerospace Integration Research Centre, a £35 million innovative centre built in partnership with Airbus and Rolls-Royce, fosters collaboration between industry and academia. A new £65 million Digital Aviation Research and Technology Centre will also be built at Cranfield to spearhead the UK’s research into digital aviation technology.

Notable Cranfield alumni include Warren East, CEO of Rolls-Royce plc and Ralph Hooper, who attended the College of Aeronautics at Cranfield in 1946 and went on to become one of the UK’s most important post-war aircraft designers, creating the Hawker Harrier jump jet.