The next generation of rockets could be propelled by bacteria.
“A microbial fuel cell is basically a battery that uses bacteria to generate electricity,explained Paul Juralowicz, payload project manager for UBC Rocket, one of several engineering design teams at UBC.
The bacteria living inside the battery generate electricity by feeding on the waste water. It also happens to clean up the trash.
The UBC Rocket Payloads team wanted to see if this technology could become a source of sustainable energy, fresh water and rocket fuel in space.
They have launched six different microbial fuel cells since 2019, competing in three different national competitions. Four of these batteries were successfully tested on a parabolic flight simulating weightlessness conditions last summer.
Most recently, they launched a microbial fuel cell in two of the rockets designed and built by UBC Rocket students, ending two and a half years of hard work on a promising note.
A long trip
In August 2019, the UBC Rocket Payloads team applied to participate in the upcoming Canadian Reduced Gravity Experiment Design Challenge.
“We planned to build and test the microbial fuel cell by July 2020,” said Payloads team member Kassandra Hawes-Gardner.
“Instead, the COVID-19 pandemic hit and all the barriers it created meant several more months of navigating through the turmoil.”
The team was finally able to fabricate their microbial fuel cell and participate in the Canadian Reduced Gravity Experiment Design Challenge in Ottawa in the summer of 2021.
This summer they launched a small version that traveled from Vancouver to New Mexico and then back to Vancouver and a launch site in Ontario.
The team’s success in these different competitions is promising for further research. While testing is still in its early stages, their theory is that space travel powered by microbial fuel cells could one day be widely deployed.
Any engineer will tell you the importance of turning theory into practice, and one way to do that during your undergraduate degree is to join a design team. Design teams are an opportunity for students to put what they learn in design classes into practical applications. It is also a chance for students to network and connect with like-minded peers.
This invaluable hands-on experience creating and testing new research is exactly what made Juralowicz join UBC Rocket.
Design teams are an opportunity for students to put what they learn in design courses into practical applications and develop a network of like-minded peers.
As one of many engineering design teams at UBC, joining the payloads team with Hawes-Gardner, Justin Lawrence and Peter Voznyuk provided Juralowicz with great experience, countless memories and strong friendships.
“Everyone should join a design team. I almost think it should be mandatory in the curriculum,” Juralowicz said. “You learn so much that you don’t learn in your design classes. It really reaffirms what you learn beyond a classroom setting.
Join a technical design team
There are over 30 different engineering design teams at UBC that actively recruit new members at the start of each academic year. Many will have booths on Imagine UBC.
Design teams focus on aerospace and automotive, robotics and sustainability.
Design teams are open to all years of engineering students, including first years, and many are also open to students from other science, business, and arts faculties.
Learn more about UBC’s engineering design teams