Making oxygen out of magnets could help astronauts breathe easier

Making oxygen out of magnets could help astronauts breathe easier

Credit: Pixabay/CC0 Public Domain

An international team of scientists, including a chemist from the University of Warwick, has proposed a potentially better way to produce oxygen for astronauts in space using magnetism.

The conclusion comes from new research on magnetic phase separation in microgravity published in npj Microgravity by researchers from the University of Warwick in the UK, the University of Colorado Boulder and the Freie Universität Berlin in Germany.

Keeping astronauts breathing aboard the International Space Station and other space vehicles is a complicated and expensive process. As humans plan future missions to the Moon or Mars, better technology will be needed.

Lead author Álvaro Romero-Calvo, recent Ph.D. A graduate of the University of Colorado Boulder, he says that “on the International Space Station, oxygen is generated by an electrolytic cell that splits water into hydrogen and oxygen, but then you have to get those gases out of the system. An analysis relatively recently by a NASA Ames researcher concluded that adapting the same architecture on a trip to Mars would have such significant mass and reliability penalties that it would make no sense to use it.”

Dr Katharina Brinkert from the Department of Chemistry at the University of Warwick and the Center for Applied Space Technology and Microgravity (ZARM) in Germany says that “efficient phase separation in reduced gravitational environments is an obstacle to human space exploration and known since the first flights in space in the 1960s. This phenomenon is a particular challenge for the life support system on board spacecraft and the International Space Station (ISS), since the oxygen for the crew is produced in water electrolyser systems and requires separation of the electrode and liquid electrolyte.”

The underlying problem is buoyancy.

Imagine a glass of soda. On Earth, CO bubbles2 they float quickly to the top, but in the absence of gravity, these bubbles have nowhere to go. Instead, they remain suspended in the liquid.

NASA currently uses centrifuges to force gases together, but these machines are large and require significant mass, power, and maintenance. In the meantime, the team has conducted experiments showing that magnets could achieve the same results in some cases.

Although diamagnetic forces are well known and understood, their use by engineers in space applications has not been fully explored because gravity makes the technology difficult to demonstrate on Earth.

Enter the Center for Applied Space Technology and Microgravity (ZARM) in Germany. There, Brinkert, who has ongoing research funded by the German Aerospace Center (DLR), led the team in successful experimental tests in a special drop tower facility that simulates microgravity conditions.

Here, the groups have developed a procedure to separate gas bubbles from electrode surfaces in microgravity environments generated for 9.2 seconds in the Bremen drop tower. This study shows for the first time that gas bubbles can be “attracted” and “repelled” from a simple neodymium magnet in microgravity by immersing it in different types of aqueous solution.

The research could open new avenues for scientists and engineers developing oxygen systems, as well as other space research involving liquid-to-gas phase changes.

Dr. Brinkert says that “these effects have enormous consequences for the further development of phase separation systems, such as for long-duration space missions, suggesting that the efficient production of oxygen and, for example, the production of “hydrogen in water (photo)electrolyzer systems can be achieved even in the almost absence of the buoyant force”.

Professor Hanspeter Schaub of the University of Colorado Boulder says that “after years of analytical and computational research, being able to use this incredible drop tower in Germany provided concrete evidence that this concept will work in the zero-g space environment.” .


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More information:
Álvaro Romero-Calvo et al, Magnetic phase separation in microgravity, npj Microgravity (2022). DOI: 10.1038/s41526-022-00212-9

Provided by the University of Warwick

Summons: Making oxygen from magnets could help astronauts breathe easier (2022, August 12) Retrieved August 12, 2022, from https://phys.org/news/2022-08-oxygen-magnets-astronauts- easy.html

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