Science and Technology

Técnico researchers lead project to extract oxygen from Mars

The IPFN scientists received €175,000 from the European Space Agency to create a prototype that demonstrates the production of oxygen directly from the Martian atmosphere using plasma technology.

Breathing on Mars is one of the biggest challenges to human survival on the Red Planet. A team of scientists led by the Institute for Plasmas and Nuclear Fusion (IPFN) is about to make a strong contribution in this regard, and has just received €175,000 from the European Space Agency (ESA), for the “Performer” project, which aims to create a prototype that demonstrates the production of oxygen directly from the Martian atmosphere using plasma technology.

“We are particularly interested in the oxygen atoms in each CO2 molecule. In order to use them, it is necessary to break the strong bond between oxygen and carbon, splitting the CO2 molecule into carbon monoxide and oxygen. Both can be further used to produce fuels, and oxygen can be collected and used to breathe”, explains Vasco Guerra, professor at the Department of Physics (DF), IPFN researcher and leader of the “Performer” project.

The project proposes a new approach based on plasma, exploring the synergistic effect between two emerging technologies: non-thermal plasma and ion-conducting membranes.

The consortium brings together the IPFN team, researchers from the Dutch Institute for Fundamental Energy Research (DIFFER) and the Laboratoire de Physique des Plasmas (LPP). “We’ve been working with DIFFER and LPP for several years, on issues other than this project”, stresses professor Vasco Guerra.

The IPFN will develop the numerical modeling and simulation and will experimentally study one of the three types of reactors that will be tested. “Each partner will test a different type of reactor and DIFFER will have a central role, as it performs leading research on ion-conducting membranes; therefore, it will be the first to try the coupling between plasmas and membranes”, says the leader of “Performer” project.

The reactor will seek to overcome the results of MOXIE instrument

MOXIE, or the Mars Oxygen In-Situ Resource Utilization Experiment, is a new tool used by NASA to extract small amounts of oxygen from the Martian atmosphere. In April 2021 MOXIE accomplished the task of converting carbon dioxide into five grams of pure oxygen, which would be enough for an astronaut to breathe on the Red Planet for ten minutes. The IPFN project aims to go further, and exceed 10 grams of O2 per hour, using the same power as MOXIE, 300 Watts (W).

Taking into account the high costs of shipping objects to Space, “every gram counts”, recalls professor Vasco Guerra. In this respect too, the IPFN reactor may stand out due to the reduced dimensions that it is expected to have. “MOXIE weighs 17 kg, we are going to try to build our reactor with 6-7 kg. The volume of our reactor may be 5-6 times smaller than that of MOXIE”, he adds.

Professor Vasco Guerra recalls “MOXIE is a very stimulating project, which sets the objectives that we have to achieve in terms of power, the amount of oxygen produced per hour, the weight and volume of the reactor”. “MOXIE has a great advantage over us: it is based on known and robust technology that already exists”, he says. The DF professor discards any idea of competition between the two projects and stresses “’Performer’ must be seen in terms of collaboration and complementarity”.

The team has 6 months to demonstrate the project concept. “If things go well, we will then have an additional 12 months to define the type of reactor, the geometry and the ideal operating conditions, in order to optimize the reactor”, highlights the project leader. “If we are successful, the next step will be to compete for a future project with the perspective of making the technology evolve until it is ready, and then think of a space mission”, adds the professor.

The knowledge acquired can also be useful to make life on Earth more sustainable

The idea of using plasma to make breathable air on Mars arose within the PREMiERE project. “We were studying the use of renewable energy to convert carbon dioxide into liquid fuels by plasma technology, replacing fossil fuels with green synthetic fuels. We started to think if what we were doing on Earth could be adapted to the Martian context”, says professor Vasco Guerra.

However, the IPFN researchers will not neglect research of CO2 conversion on Earth as a potential solution to solve climate change. “Our new project – the PARADiSE project (the PlasmA RoAD to Solar fuels) – has recently received funding from FCT. It will also start in January 2022 and will make use of the previous results”, shares the DF professor. “We hope that what we learn from the ESA project will help us in this project as well, thus contributing to make life on Earth more productive, clean and sustainable”, stresses the Técnico professor.