‘Plasma’ breakthrough could let humans live on Mars

Breakthrough could help address climate change on Earth too, scientists say

Andrew Griffin
Tuesday 16 August 2022 18:33 BST

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A new plasma breakthrough could help humans live on Mars, according to the scientists who made it.

Scientists hope to build a system that would help support life as well as make the chemicals needed for processing fuels, making materials forbidding and fertilising plants.

Numerous space agencies and experts hope to send humans to live on Mars in the coming years. But the planet is hostile: it does not have the oxygen for humans, or the fuel for the machinery and equipment they will require to live.

Engineers hope that could be overcome with technology that would produce the oxygen and other materials needed for the years that humans hope to spend on the planet. If those issues 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 looks to create resources on Mars. The new breakthrough complements that approach, and may provide an efficient way of producing the molecules that are needed.

As engineers look to produce the requisite oxygen for human life on Mars, they are hit by problems. But the new breakthrough could help.

“First, the decomposition of carbon dioxide molecules to extract oxygen. It’s a very difficult molecule to break,” said Vasco Guerra, of the University of Lisbon, an author on the new paper. “Second, the separation of the produced oxygen from a gas mixture that also contains, for example, carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide. We’re 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 make oxygen.

“When bulletlike electrons collide with a carbon dioxide molecule, they can directly decompose it or transfer energy to make it vibrate,” said Guerra. “This energy can be channeled, to a large extent, into carbon dioxide decomposition. Together with our colleagues in France and the Netherlands, we experimentally demonstrated the validity of these theories. Moreover, the heat generated in the plasma is also beneficial for the separation of oxygen.”

The same system could help break apart carbon dioxide molecules to make green fuels and recycle chemicals, scientists suggest – helping address climate change on Earth, too.

The new research is described in a paper, ‘Plasmas for in-situ resource utilization on Mars: Fuels, life support, and agriculture’, published today in the Journal of Applied Physics.

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