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Water Today Title December 8, 2023

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Update 2023/1/27

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Crickets In Space
McGill University's Deep Space Food Challenge semi-finalists will breed and harvest crickets to feed astronauts

Suzanne Forcese

“Cricket harvesting has been going on for millennia, in many areas around the world, so that’s not an innovation in itself. The innovation is bringing it down to a controlled environment and applying that to space travel, and to more remote communities in Northern Canada.”

-- Alexander Becker, co-leader (together with Cynthia Hitti) of the CRCTS Team

The Cricket Rearing Collection and Transformation System (CRCTS) was designed by the McGill Team co-led by Alexander Becker & Cynthia Hitti

Interview With Alexander Becker

WT: Congratulations on making it to the semi-finals in the Deep Space Food Challenge (DSFC)!

The goal of the DSFC is to create novel food production systems that maximize safe and nutritious outputs for long-duration space missions. The designed systems are not only aimed to feed astronauts in deep space but also to support remote communities or individuals living in harsh environments on Earth.

What was there about this challenge that spoke to you and Cynthia Hitti to lead a team that would respond to the challenge?

Becker: I discovered the Challenge by scrolling through an ad on social media and recruited a few of my friends. As upper-year engineering students, we were excited to work on a large-scale real-world project such as the DSFC as it represented an excellent opportunity to put our skills and knowledge to the test.

With climate change and food scarcity representing ever-growing problems in our society, we were determined to develop a system that could provide for the needs of tomorrow.

WT: How did you assemble your team? What expertise/qualities were you looking for?

Becker: While in Phase 1, we were simply a small team of friends. Phase 2 of the Challenge required us to develop a prototype of our system. As such, we needed to seek talent across the engineering and nutrition disciplines. We reached out to students across McGill’s undergraduate cohorts and assembled a team of mechanical, electrical, software, materials, and biological engineering students, as well as nutrition and dietetics students. 

The development of a prototype of this scale was beyond the scope of any project any of us had previously worked on. We needed to seek out individuals that complemented each other in skill, knowledge, and passion.

WT: What is MARTLET? McGill is the only University to have 2 teams moving forward in the challenge. What is CRCTS?

Becker: MARTLET (McGill Advanced bio-Regenerative Toolkit for Long-Excursion Trips) is an umbrella organization put together by McGill Bioresource Engineering Professor Mark Lefsrud.

MARTLET put forth more than half a dozen projects, each developed by a different team in the first phase of the DSFC. Two of these teams, CRCTS and InSpira PBR, moved forward to the second phase.

The Cricket Rearing, Collection, and Transformation System (CRCTS) is our team.

We focused on developing a controlled environment to support the growth of crickets, while also providing users with the means for processing the insects into a consumable powder.

WT: Why crickets?

Becker: Crickets are rich in protein. They are far more efficient at converting their feed into protein when compared to traditional protein sources such as cattle. More than 12 times more resource-efficient than raising cattle, according to a 2013 Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations report.

By harvesting the crickets prior to the development of the insects’ chitin-rich exoskeleton (which may be indigestible to many humans) we should be able to eliminate food waste.

The technology produces a finely-ground powder that is stored safely and aseptically within the system.

When combined with water to form a paste, cricket powder is a versatile, and appetizing, ingredient.

Our team has taste-tested the edible cricket powder. We were surprised at how tasty it was.

WT: What were the Challenge criteria you had to meet?

Becker: Even though we were thinking outside the box, we still had to meet the criteria set out by the Challenge.

For example, the proposed technologies must be less than 2 cubic meters (about twice the volume of a large refrigerator) in volume, pass through a doorway that is 1.07 m wide and 1.90 m tall, consume as little water as possible, and less than 3000 watts of power – no more than what it takes to operate the average laundry dryer. The technologies should produce about 10 percent of an astronaut's daily nutritional needs for a crew of four astronauts.

Applicants were also asked to consider how their innovations could apply to terrestrial environments experiencing food security issues.

WT: Please tell us about the system’s technology you have devised.

Becker: Our system is designed to breed, promote the growth of, and harvest crickets suitable for human consumption.

Our novel, one-of-a-kind cricket habitat is designed to produce all the eggs necessary to support the harvest of a few thousand crickets every week. This is done in a series of trays which host the crickets.

Supporting crickets for human consumption requires that great care be taken to keep every part of the habitat clean and food safe.

To help us meet that standard, advanced air filters, disinfecting wipes, and ultra-violet lights are used.

Waste is removed by a vacuum system.

Live telemetry is also remotely transmitted, including temperature, humidity, and lighting information. Each tray is equipped with cameras to monitor the status of the crickets at all times.

When it is time to harvest the crickets, they are dried and subsequently ground into powder using a custom-designed section within the overall device.

Our system produces cricket powder as a final product. From there, system users (astronauts) can use this powder in recipes, or by combining the powder with water to produce a paste.

WT: Where will the water come from?

Becker: Importantly, our system is not designed to function in microgravity or to provide water, nor is it expected to.

The DSFC seeks technologies for use in colonies, such as on the Moon and on Mars. These outposts will no doubt have a means of recycling water, possibly much like that used on the International Space Station.

WT: How do you envision this technology working in space? Astronauts will have only 3-4 hours per week to devote to food production.

Becker: The CRCTS device has been designed to operate in Earth gravity as per the guidelines of the Challenge’s first and second phases. Nevertheless, we have already included features that will make the system operative in lower gravity settings. For example, the crickets walk across a mesh, allowing them to grip the surface and avoid floating away.

For the elements of the system that are currently not adapted to lower gravity settings, we have conceived ways to modify the system to adhere to this additional constraint. These ideas will be implemented in phase 3 of the Challenge should we be selected.

Our device has been designed to minimize crew interaction time. Once the device is in operation, most interactions will be cleaning and sterilization tasks which should require no more than two to three hours of crew time per week. Beyond this, the crew will need to move trays around and operate the processing system. They will also need to monitor tray telemetry periodically.

WT: What is the next step for your team in the DSFC process?

Becker: We have just presented our system to the DSFC judges during the kitchen-led demonstration. Next, we will be submitting a comprehensive report. Beyond this, results will be announced this spring.

Should we be selected to proceed to phase 3, we will be required to upgrade our prototype from its current “proof-of-concept" form to a fully functional system. This final device is to be presented in 2024.

WT: How would you respond to critics of space exploration who might say that we should be focusing more on our problems on Earth?

Becker: Many inventions we now take for granted on Earth were originally developed to help us explore space. As the DSFC’s mission statement highlights, the goal is to develop a food system for use in space and on Earth in remote locations. This illustrates that research into space technologies benefits humanity back on Earth.

WT: How is this challenge fine-tuning who you and the team are and what your mission is?

Becker: This has been a learning experience for everyone involved. From technical knowledge and practical skills to developing a better understanding of team and project management, participating in the DSFC has helped us grow as students, as future engineers, and as future leaders.


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