Picture an entire planet – bronze, upon first glance from a distance, owing to the countenance provided by none other than endless plains of rock, sun and desert with no visible sign of water, miraculously inhabited nevertheless. Such is the planet of Arrakis, the mythical world created by Frank Herbert in his ground-breaking, 1965 Science-fiction novel, Dune.
Science-fiction—though as its very name suggests, is an invention simply meant to baffle audiences using its marvelous, visionary worlds—has bestowed the interested with untold remarkable ideas that either could or could not be brought to life. However, heretofore only a percentage of these have actually been deemed practical.
Author Frank Herbert’s Dune and its five sequels, set in the distant 11000th century, contains several technologically advanced equipment as well, inclusive of “ornithopters”, “heighliners” and “lasguns”. But the “stillsuits” regularly mentioned among the book’s pages have seized greater attention.
While many a Director had attempted at encapsulating the complex novel within a two-to-three-hour time frame for a motion picture, true justice for the book was done by Denis Villeneuve in his epic 2021 remake, Dune: Part One, which provides the first, closest-to-accurate look at a stillsuit.
What exactly is a Stillsuit and How Does it Work?
Arrakis is nearly devoid of water, thus making it almost uninhabitable. The stillsuit, therefore, is basically an invention utilized on almost a domestic level by the “Fremen”—the natives of the desert planet of Arrakis—with the intention of recycling bodily fluids such as sweat and urine using the body’s own energy, as both a water-conservation method and to retain drinking water on the desert. In the first book of Dune, the ecologist Liet Kynes explains to the Duke Leto Atreides how a stillsuit works:
“It’s basically a micro-sandwich — a high-efficiency filter and heat-exchange system. The skin-contact layer’s porous. Perspiration passes through it, having cooled the body … near-normal evaporation process. The next two layers . . . include heat exchange filaments and salt precipitators. Salt’s reclaimed. Motions of the body, especially breathing and some osmotic action provide the pumping force. Reclaimed water circulates to catchpockets from which you draw it through this tube in the clip at your neck… Urine and feces are processed in the thigh pads. In the open desert, you wear this filter across your face, this tube in the nostrils with these plugs to ensure a tight fit. Breathe in through the mouth filter, out through the nose tube. With a Fremen suit in good working order, you won’t lose more than a thimbleful of moisture a day…”
Being as how severely vital water is, Herbert’s fictional invention would be of much service for the future as much as it would presently be. Herbert, an ecological consultant himself, was a forethinker for humankind who pressed that humanity needed to be more farsighted about the consequences that would come to pass in the future as a result of our interactions with nature and plan humanity’s future in accordance with it.
Is Recycling Bodily Fluids Actually Possible?
Recycling bodily fluids and converting them into drinkable water is not a foreign concept. Astronauts living in the International Space Station (ISS) have been recycling urine and perspiration since 2009, prompting the saying, “yesterday’s urine is tomorrow’s coffee.”
A crew member’s urine is collected separately into an air funnel, chemicals are added to prevent its break-down and the development of ammonia and other gases, and the components are then transferred to a urine processor. An astronaut’s perspiration gathers in the air before it is collected, its humidity is removed and the liquid is then sent to a water processor along with the components in the urine processor, where a procedure takes place to convert it into drinkable water.
The process of recycling bodily fluids into drinkable water requires a variety of machinery. The ISS itself consists of apparatus operated by solar energy viz; electric pumps, electric heaters and a rotary separator that spins the components from the water processor mentioned earlier. Heat is then added to boil the water at a low temperature before it is condensed, cleaned and reheated for oxidization. Further chemicals are removed, and iodine is added to the water to make it fit to drink.
What Does This Say About the Possibility of Real-Life Stillsuits?
To put it in a nutshell, the ISS is inherently a colossal stillsuit. In place of solar energy, a stillsuit employs energy from the body for the fluid recycling process.
“You can certainly capture energy from body movement,” states NASA technologist James Broyan. “It may be possible to follow the same process to enable water recovery.” However, Broyan also mentions that greater energy than what the human body can typically provide would be required to recycle human waste. “If you took in 2500 calories per day, you can’t generate 2500 calories of work because the body is only 25% efficient,” he says, “I don’t think it is thermodynamically possible to do what they are doing in the suits.”
Jacqueline West, one of the chief costume designers who worked with Denis Villeneuve on the set of his movie Dune to create highly realistic stillsuits, has a comparatively optimistic belief: “When people do go to Mars, they’ll probably wear something very close to the stillsuits.”
The real-life production of a stillsuit right out of Dune seems neither impossible nor predictable. Nonetheless, in compliance with West’s statement and judging by technology’s ceaseless race with time to evolve, it would be right to say that such occurrences would be up to the generations of the future to decide.
By Mischelle Rupasinghe