A new plasma breakthrough could help humans live on Mars, according to the scientists who made it.
Scientists hope to build a system that will help sustain life, as well as make the chemicals needed to process fuels, make materials that forbid, and fertilize plants.
Numerous space agencies and experts hope to send humans to live on Mars in the coming years. But the planet is hostile: it doesn’t have the oxygen for humans, or the fuel for the machinery and equipment they’ll need to live.
Engineers hope that this can be overcome with technology that produces the oxygen and other materials needed for the years humans hope to spend on the planet. If these problems cannot be solved, humanity may never survive on the red planet.
NASA is already working on what it calls the Mars Oxygen In Situ Resource Utilization Experiment, which seeks to create resources on Mars. The new advance complements this approach and may provide an efficient way to produce the molecules that are needed.
When engineers seek to produce the oxygen necessary for human life on Mars, they are beset by problems. But the new breakthrough could help.
“First, the decomposition of carbon dioxide molecules to extract oxygen. It is a very difficult molecule to break,” said Vasco Guerra, from the University of Lisbon, author of the new paper. “Secondly, the separation of the oxygen produced from a mixture of gases that also contains, for example, carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide. We are looking at these two steps in a holistic way to solve both challenges at the same time. This is where plasmas can help.”
Plasma is the fourth natural state of matter. It contains free charged particles, such as electrons and ions, which can be used to help produce oxygen.
“When bullet-like electrons collide with a carbon dioxide molecule, they can break it apart directly or transfer energy to make it vibrate,” Guerra said. “This energy can be channeled, to a large extent, into the decomposition of carbon dioxide. Together with our colleagues in France and the Netherlands, we experimentally demonstrated the validity of these theories. In addition, the heat generated in the plasma is also beneficial for oxygen separation.”
The same system could help break down carbon dioxide molecules to make green fuels and recycle chemicals, the scientists suggest, also helping to tackle climate change on Earth.
The new research is described in a paper, “Plasmas for In-Situ Resource Utilization on Mars: Fuels, Life Support, and Agriculture,” published today in Journal of Applied Physics.
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