With the failed launch of SpaceX’s Starship rocket, a new cloud is floating over the dream of sending a manned mission to Mars. However, scientists continue to work without worrying about the continuation of this mission. Many long-term questions have not yet been fully answered. For example, how can we produce food, water, fertilizer or fuel on Mars, so that a longer stay on the Red Planet becomes possible?
One of these vital elements already exists. In recent years, scientists have found evidence of water ice at the poles and under the surface of Mars. This also opens the door to other facilities. Although it will take more work to make it available to astronauts.
A team of chemists and materials scientists at the Chinese University of Science and Technology recently took an important new step in this regard. Researchers have built a mobile robot that can convert water into oxygen via an electrochemical process.
This conversion requires a catalyst – a substance that initiates chemical reactions. Bringing catalysts from Earth is expensive, so scientists want a robot to synthesize these materials on site, using materials available on Mars itself.
The device – equipped with an oversized mechanical arm and a powerful artificial intelligence model – must collect rocks and minerals itself and then break them down using acids and alkaline solutions. The robot tests the remaining individual building blocks against a database of more than 3.7 million chemical structures. In this way it predicts which combination of rocks and minerals will produce a suitable catalyst for water.
In one experiment, a robotic chemist independently combined five types of Martian meteorites into a fine catalyst. This allowed him to produce oxygen. It also succeeded in reaching -37 degrees Celsius, which is the average temperature on Mars. The whole process took two months. According to researchers, this would take a human chemist two thousand years.
Using one square meter of Martian material, the robot can produce about 60 grams of oxygen per hour, researchers say. He can keep doing this for years on end. If this is true, astronauts would have to bring little or no extra oxygen from Earth to their capsule, a solution that saves a lot of space and money. Oxygen is not only necessary for survival on Mars. It is also necessary for the return flight: oxygen is also used as an oxidizer for the rocket engine fuel.
The robot is not the first that can produce oxygen completely automatically. NASA’s Mars rover has been doing this for some time. Although it does not get its oxygen from the Martian soil, but from the atmosphere, which consists mainly of carbon dioxide2. So far, Perseverance has been unable to produce more than a few grams of oxygen at a time. According to the team responsible for the project, production can easily be increased.
What distinguishes the Chinese robot is flexibility. The device can also manufacture other catalysts, which can be used, for example, to produce fertilisers. The robot does not necessarily need to be deployed on Mars. Researchers believe it could also be useful on the moon.
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