Currently, the only way to make oxygen and hydrogen (used for breathing and fuel, respectively) from the salty water found on Mars is by way of electrolysis – a process that is not only expensive, but would also be difficult to perform on the planet’s surface.
And yet, the methods of electrolysis are not all the same. Case in point, researchers at Washington University in St Louis have recently developed a simplified and less costly version of electrolysis, capable of performing well under regular terrestrial conditions, as well as conditions similar to those prevailing on the Red Plant itself.
The research was published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
“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.
The new system could help researchers overcome a key obstacle to crewed missions to Mars, namely – the necessity of producing oxygen and fuel on-site. And since both public and private space agencies are considering the possibility of eventual colonisation, this issue will only become more relevant as time goes on.
According to Ramani, the technique developed at his lab can produce 25 times more oxygen than the Mars Oxygen In-Situ Resource Utilization Experiment (MOXIE) suite aboard NASA’s Perseverance rover scheduled to land on Mars on 18 February 2021, while using the same amount of power.
In addition, the system is capable of producing hydrogen that could be used to fuel the trip back to Earth, which would significantly cut down on costs and simplify the operation, while also making space missions within the Solar System more viable in the process.
The high performance of the novel brine eletrolyser comes down to a lead ruthenate pyrochlore anode developed by the team in conjunction with a platinum on carbon cathode, as well as the optimal use of traditional electrochemical engineering principles.
“Paradoxically, the dissolved perchlorate in the water, so-called impurities, actually help in an environment like that of Mars,” said joint first author Shrihari Sankarasubramanian. “They prevent the water from freezing and also improve the performance of the electrolyser system by lowering the electrical resistance.”
Beyond applications for space travel, the system could also be used for producing oxygen on submarines and during deep sea exploration.
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