Ferndale resident and engineer Derek McFall took second place in NASA’s Recycling in Space Challenge for his microgravity waste management system design, which can be seen on his monitor.

Ferndale resident and engineer Derek McFall took second place in NASA’s Recycling in Space Challenge for his microgravity waste management system design, which can be seen on his monitor.

Photo by Donna Agusti


Ferndale engineer places 2nd in worldwide NASA competition

By: Mike Koury | Woodward Talk | Published April 15, 2019

 McFall’s project is designed to break down solid, liquid or gaseous waste and feed it to a reactor to reclaim the material.

McFall’s project is designed to break down solid, liquid or gaseous waste and feed it to a reactor to reclaim the material.

Photo by Donna Agusti

FERNDALE — A lifelong NASA enthusiast and Ferndale resident who designed a project for the organization has been given special recognition for his work.

Derek McFall, a product development engineer with SRG Global in Troy, placed second in NASA’s Recycling in Space Challenge for his microgravity waste management system. He received $2,500 for his submission.

According to a press release, the contest’s purpose was to “engage the public to develop methods of processing and feeding trash into a high-temperature reactor (that) aids NASA’s Advanced Exploration Systems and space technology programs to develop trash-to-gas technology that can recycle waste into useful gases.”

McFall’s project was a design that accepts waste, whether it’s a solid, liquid or gas, and then breaks down the waste and feeds it to a reactor to reclaim the material. According to the release and McFall, his design’s approach is “to shred solid waste and convey processed waste into the reactor. Liquid and gaseous waste were managed through air streams and pressure differentials, which squeezes and blows the astronaut waste into a reactor.”

“The actual mechanisms inside of the device that I made are pretty straightforward,” McFall said. “Imagine like a garbage disposal for no gravity. There’s a pressure vessel. Once the operator opens that up and deposits the material, it gets chewed up in a shredder, and then from there it gets fed into a screw conveyor, and that screw conveyor pushes it into the reactor.”

The Ferndale resident checks out the NASA website every couple of months, as the organization every so often posts a problem and asks the public for solutions.

This was the second time that McFall submitted a proposal to NASA, but nothing came of his first project. He learned about the contest around Thanksgiving last year and jumped at the chance to submit something.

“I worked on it all in my free time for about 2 1/2 months,” he said. “I guess somewhere around 150 hours.”

McFall’s fiancée, Samantha Boyke, saw firsthand how much the project meant to her future husband.

“He was very intensively working on it for months. He would come home from work and dedicate hours (to) working on this project. I pretty much had to just let him be for approximately … three months,” she said.

Boyke said she was ecstatic when McFall received the news that he had gotten second place.

“He’s such a humble person,” she said. “He even said going in he didn’t care about winning at all. He was even just happy having an honorable mention or NASA even just seeing his work. He didn’t even care about winning. He just wants to contribute in any way he can.

“I mean, he would love to be an astronaut. He would love to go up in space, but just being able to contribute, as being an engineer, as being a fan, was really special, so I was super happy. I think I screamed a lot, jumped up and down, got really excited.”

McFall is not sure if NASA will do anything with his design, which he said is highly dependent on the reactors, and his understanding is that they still are being developed.

“Most likely the system that I designed and the first-place winner designed will not be used as it is right now, but they may lift certain aspects of the design and use that,” he said.

All that being said, McFall didn’t really have the words to describe how he felt at the news of his acknowledgement by NASA.

“I was very honored NASA gave me recognition for the work that I’d done,” he said.