NASA granted a Pennovation researcher $125K for a water monitoring system used in space

Dr. Zehui Xia has a goal that two years from now, she'll be ready to send the product on a manned spacecraft.

Dr. Zehui Xia in her lab. (Courtesy photo)

It’s not often we get to refer to the National Aeronautics and Space Administration in relation to Philly tech. If you’re an astrophile, this one’s for you.

Dr. Zehui Xia, a scientist with Geoppert LLC who works out of the Pennovation Center, was just awarded $125,000 from NASA under the Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) program for her work developing a flight-ready “nanopore” water monitoring procedure. The goal is to provide a fast, simple and reliable way of identifying inorganics and organics present in the water systems aboard the International Space Station.

Xia has been working in research and development at Geoppert — a five-person operation based in Logan Square — since 2019, when she received her Ph.D. from University of Massachusetts Amherst. Xia’s research will ultimately lead to a “portable mini-lab that will identify and remove contaminants down to the molecular level, and which can endure the shock and vibration of sub-orbital flight,” per a spokesperson. The technology could potentially be used on future manned missions to the moon and Mars.

The water molecules technique is important to ensure the health of crew in space, and make sure they are safe on their journey back to Earth, Xia told The technology for the nanopore water monitoring procedure is small and requires less expertise.

“We want to bring this to space, and try to augment everything, keep it at low weight, low power, and also make it easy to operate,” she said. “Astronauts, they have to deal with scientific issues everyday, this doesn’t need to be one.”

The grant is for Phase 1 of the project, which will span over the next 13 months. Xia can apply for a Phase 2 grant next year to continue research, and ideally then be close to commercialization of the project so her team can “send it to space,” she said.

Companies: Pennovation Center / NASA

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