A little bacterium transforms ammonium, a component of urine, into hydrazine, a.k.a rocket fuel. But unfortunately, it's not enough to grant liftoff yet.
Discovery News reports anammox, a bacterium that lives without oxygen, was discovered in the 1990s, initially stirring interest in its potential for hydrazine production. But interest waned when the process didn't produce near enough what NASA would need to send a vessel into space.
Since then scientists at Radboud University Nijmegen in the Netherlands have been researching just what about the bacterium allows this reaction to take place to better understand its future applicability. MSNBC reports that they found it is "a complex of three proteins":
"Now that we understand how hydrazine is made we can try to improve the catalyst," [microbiologist Mike] Jetten said. "And we produce millions of tons of ammonium in wastewater every year," he added, suggesting that therein is enough of the material to manufacture rocket fuel.
As Jetten notes, anammox is currently used in wastewater treatment facilities as one of the most energy-efficient options to break down ammonia.
Discovery News quotes Jetten as saying:
"Now we are accurately determining the crystal structure of the protein complex. Perhaps we can improve the production process if we have a better understanding of how the protein complex fits together."
Although researchers will be studying techniques to produce more hydrazine from a readily abundant substance like urine, it has potential application in biofuel, according to Discovery News.