Gas station on Mars as a precondition for life there

Ivar Kruusenberg.
Ivar Kruusenberg. Source: ERR

Estonian scientists have devised a method that could be used to generate oxygen from CO2 off planet.

We're all addicts who could not survive without a hefty dose of oxygen. That's the result of having evolved on a planet of plants. Their daily dance of photosynthesis has provided us with an air that is one-fifth oxygen. Dependance on this gas is one of the reasons why space colonization seems so outlandish.

Even short trips out of Earth require packing a generous amount of our favorite colorless-odorless, not just for the people but also for the machines. More than 70 percent of rocket fuel is made of liquid oxygen and manned missions need to carry enough for the round trip.

That could soon change, say Estonian scientists Sander Ratso and Ivar Kruusenberg whose invention might make it plausible to build a gas station on Mars, which would provide space explorers with all the O2 they need.

"For every 1 kilogram that goes up in space, the rockets could pack 226 kilograms less fuel than they do now," predicts Ratso based on preliminary calculations. He has spent this year running tests on the device at the European Space Agency and is currently crunching numbers to figure out a way to make the prototype more resistant to corrosion. Kruusenberg is looking into possibilities to source some of the material for building the reactor from Mars itself.

As with many breakthroughs, the road to this one is laden with happy accidents. Ratso and Kruusenberg were testing novel catalysts for fuel elements when an experiment went awry and resulted in tiny translucent fibers. Upon closer inspection those proved to be made of pure carbon sourced from CO2.

Sander Ratso. Source: ERR

Carbon in the form of graphite is a much-needed component in lithium batteries, but mining graphite has devastating consequences for the surrounding environment. Needless to say the prospect of making graphite literally appear out of thin air seemed a promising avenue. Even more so considering the world has long been struggling with excessive CO2 emissions. Turning those into graphite could quell pollution, avoid opening new mines and enable the manufacture of batteries for green energy solutions.

The chemistry behind it all is rather simple: if one takes away the C from CO2, then one is left with O2, the stuff of life. That's what Ratso and Kruusenberg's reactor has been pumping out into Tallinn city air while making copious amounts of designer graphite.

Of course the oxygen is only a waste product as long as the main goal is graphite production here on Earth. On Mars the tables would be turned and the holy grail would be oxygen. Mars' atmosphere is 95 percent CO2 and this compact technology could be a game changer. It could eliminate the need for missions to pack along all of the rocket fuel for the return flight and instead cook up the necessary fuel on the spot. It would also make the final frontier seem a little more like home. One small breath of fresh air for man, one big sigh of relief for mankind.


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Editor: Marcus Turovski

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