Scientists invent technology to extract oxygen and fuel from Mars’ salty water in huge step forward to colonising Red Planet

SpaceX founder Elon Musk recently announced that humans will land on Mars in four years

Mayank Aggarwal
Wednesday 02 December 2020 17:54
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A picture of Mars by NASA which was created from over 100 images of the red planet
A picture of Mars by NASA which was created from over 100 images of the red planet
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Humankind’s quest to set up base on Mars has received a boost as scientists have now claimed to have discovered a way that can help extract oxygen and fuel from the salty water found on the red planet.

The water which is salty due to the Martian soil can't be used for drinking purposes. Even electrolysis, the usual method of using electricity to break it down into oxygen (to breathe) and hydrogen (for fuel) requires removing the salt – a cumbersome method that can be a costly endeavour in a harsh environment like Mars.

But now researchers at Washington University in St Louis have developed an electrolysis system that can directly separate oxygen and hydrogen from briny water – in a less complicated and expensive manner.  

They examined their system in a simulated Martian atmosphere where the temperature was about -36C, in addition to testing it under typical terrestrial conditions.  

“Our Martian brine electrolyser radically changes the logistical calculus of missions to Mars and beyond. This technology is equally useful on Earth where it opens up the oceans as a viable oxygen and fuel source,” said Vijay Ramani of Washington University.

In the summer of 2008, NASA's Phoenix Mars Lander "touched and tasted" Martian water, vapors from melted ice dug up by the lander. Since then, the European Space Agency's Mars Express has discovered several underground ponds of water which remain in a liquid state thanks to the presence of magnesium perchlorate – salt.

For instance, for living on Mars and returning to Earth, astronauts would need to manufacture some of the necessities, including water and fuel and this research could be very useful for such a purpose.  

In years ahead, space agencies – both private and public – aim to send manned missions to Mars and even try to live there temporarily. 

Space exploration company SpaceX’s founder and chief executive officer Elon Musk on Tuesday said he expected humans to land on Mars in six years. He also said that SpaceX plans to launch an unmanned spacecraft and land on Mars in two years, with a chance of the first human landing on Mars in four years instead of six.

United States’ space agency Nasa's Perseverance rover which was launched in July 2020 is scheduled to land at Jezero Crater on Mars on 18 February 2021. It will look at signs of ancient life and collect rock and soil samples for a possible return to Earth.  

It is carrying instruments that will use high-temperature electrolysis but the Mars Oxygen In-Situ Resource Utilization Experiment (MOXIE) will be producing oxygen only, from the carbon dioxide in the air.

However, this latest research claims that by the system developed in Mr Ramani's lab can produce 25 times more oxygen than MOXIE using the same amount of power and can also produce hydrogen that can be used to fuel the return trip.

Several underground ponds of water on Mars have earlier been discovered which remain in a liquid state thanks to the presence of magnesium perchlorate.

Shrihari Sankarasubramanian, a research scientist and joint first author of the paper, said: “Paradoxically, the dissolved perchlorate in the water, so-called impurities, actually help in an environment like that of Mars.

"They prevent the water from freezing … and also improve the performance of the electrolyser system by lowering the electrical resistance.”

The researchers intend to use it on Earth as well. They believe it could be useful in defense, creating oxygen on demand in submarines and could also provide oxygen during deep sea exploration.

The research was published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

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