Converting greenhouse gases to fuel could get astronomers home from Mars

A gas station on Mars?

Undoubtedly, converting carbon dioxide into fuel could help address global warming, but it could also help make martian fuel.

With this aim, engineers at the University of Cincinnati are developing new ways to convert greenhouse gases to fuel.

Mars’s atmosphere is mainly composed of carbon dioxide. Using this technique could save half the fuel that astronauts need for a return trip home.

The team used a reactor to convert carbon dioxide into methane. International Space Station uses the Sabatier reaction process to absorb carbon dioxide from the astronauts’ air and generate rocket fuel to keep the station in high orbit.

UC College of Engineering and Applied Science assistant professor Jingjie Wu said, “It’s like a gas station on Mars. You could easily pump carbon dioxide through this reactor and produce methane for a rocket.”

“I realized that greenhouse gases were going to be a big issue in society. Many countries realize that carbon dioxide is a big issue for the sustainable development of our society. That’s why I think we need to achieve carbon neutrality.”

The team is experimenting with different catalysts that can increase the yield of methane.

Wu said, “the process holds promise to help mitigate climate change. But it also has a big commercial advantage in producing fuel as a byproduct.”

“The process is 100 times more productive than it was just ten years ago. So you can imagine that progress will come faster and faster.”

different catalysts
UC chemical engineers are experimenting with different catalysts to convert carbon dioxide into methane and other fuels. Photo/Andrew Higley/UC Creative + Brand

“In the next ten years, we’ll have a lot of startup companies to commercialize this technique.”

Along with methane, the team is using different catalysts to produce ethylene as well. Ethylene is the world’s most important chemical.

Wu said, “The process is scalable for use in power plants that can generate tons of carbon dioxide. And it’s efficient since the conversion can take place right where excess carbon dioxide is produced.”

“Advances in fuel production from carbon dioxide make him more confident that humans will set foot on Mars in his lifetime.”

“Right now, if you want to come back from Mars, you would need to bring twice as much fuel, which is very heavy. And in the future, you’ll need other fuels. So we can produce methanol from carbon dioxide and use them to produce other downstream materials. Then maybe one day we could live on Mars.”

Journal Reference:
  1. Tianyu Zhang et al., Regulation of functional groups on graphene quantum dots directs selective CO2 to CH4 conversion, Nature Communications (2021). DOI: 10.1038/s41467-021-25640-1

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