Two researchers at Waterloo Engineering have made the semi-finals of a multi-year contest to develop new food production technologies and systems to sustain astronauts on long space missions.

Chemical engineering professors Valerie Ward and Nasser Abukhdeir are among 10 entries still in the running in the Canadian edition of the Deep Space Food Challenge, which has a $380,000 top prize.

As semi-finalists, Ward and Abukhdeir have already won $30,000 for a proposed algae rack system that minimizes water and energy usage while cultivating highly nutritious microalgae for human consumption.

The contest – which is running parallel to a similar challenge sponsored by NASA in the United States – was created by the Canadian Space Agency and Impact Canada to encourage innovate ways of efficiently producing food both in space and on Earth.

Open to businesses and other organizations in addition to academics, it challenged entrants to fill in food gaps for four-person crews on three-year space missions with no opportunities to get fresh supplies.

The challenge stressed maximizing the output of palatable, nutritious, safe foods requiring little processing, with minimal inputs and waste, and potential applications in urban centres and harsh environments on Earth.

The semi-finalists must now build and demonstrate a food production prototype. Up to four finalists will receive $100,000 each next fall.

Solution combines old and new

Ward said she had been thinking about how to cultivate microalgae with less water for a long time and came up with a low-cost solution with Abukhdeir that combines some old ideas in the field of biochemical engineering with a modern design and materials.

"Not only does this have promise for growing algae in space, but also for growing them in arid climates on Earth where sunshine is plentiful, but water is scarce," she said. "We are excited to have the opportunity to build our prototype and see how efficient our design can be."

The last round of the event will require the four finalists to scale up their projects over 12 to 18 months. The grand prize winner of an additional $380,000 is expected to be named in the spring of 2024.

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