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Mars exploration: astronauts could use plasma to produce oxygen and fertilizers

A form of matter called plasma, which contains charged particles, could help break down the Martian atmosphere into more useful components.


16 August 2022

Sending people to Mars is no easy task


Exploding molecules with a soup of charged particles could help astronauts produce oxygen and other key resources from the carbon dioxide-rich Martian atmosphere.

basque war at the University of Lisbon, Portugal, and colleagues have shown that plasma, a gas-like state of matter made of charged particles, can vibrate in such a way as to split carbon dioxide into its constituent carbon and oxygen. By combining this with a filtering membrane, astronauts could use the process to produce oxygen on Mars, says Guerra. “Mars has very good natural conditions for oxygen production using plasma technology,” he says.

An oxygen-producing device already exists on Mars: NASA’s Mars Oxygen In Situ Resource Utilization Experiment (MOXIE), which is mounted on the Perseverance rover. It uses high pressures and temperatures to separate carbon dioxide and then a membrane made of stabilized zirconium to filter out oxygen. A similar membrane could be used with plasma, says Guerra, which he says would be more efficient and easier to perform on the Martian surface than MOXIE’s electricity-driven method.

The work of Guerra and his team represents an important maturation of plasma technologies, he says. Michael Hecht at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, which oversees the MOXIE project. But it’s unlikely to exceed MOXIE’s efficiency levels because MOXIE is already operating near theoretical limits for oxygen production, says Hecht.

However, the plasma can be tuned to vibrate at different molecular frequencies, allowing it to break apart other molecules and produce resources that MOXIE cannot, such as nitrogen and nitric oxide. “There are other processes, like nitrogen and NO production for fertilizers, and things like that, where plasma is much more versatile,” says Hecht.

The technology is still far from ready for Mars. Guerra and his team hope to build a prototype in the next few years, with a space mission to follow once the technology is proven to work.

Magazine Reference: Journal of Applied Physics, DOI: 10.1063/5.0098011

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