A plasma-based way to produce and separate oxygen within the Martian environment

Harvesting resources on Mars with plasmas.

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The fourth naturally occurring state of matter, plasma, includes free-floating charged particles like electrons and ions. Due to their small weight and ease of electric field acceleration, electrons can reach incredibly high energy.

An international team of researchers devised a method to generate and separate oxygen within the Martian environment using plasma. This plasma-based method harness and processes local resources to create products on Mars.

The atmosphere of the red planet is mainly made of carbon dioxide, which may be split to produce oxygen. Its pressure is optimal for plasma ignition, making it virtually ideal for in situ resource consumption by plasmas.

However, two main problems arise when producing oxygen on Mars: 

  1. The decomposition of carbon dioxide molecules to extract oxygen.
  2. The separation of the produced oxygen from a gas mixture that contains, for example, carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide.

Author Vasco Guerra of the University of Lisbon said, “We’re looking at these two steps in a holistic way to solve both challenges simultaneously. This is where plasmas can help.”

“When bulletlike electrons collide with a carbon dioxide molecule, they can directly decompose it or transfer energy to make it vibrate. This energy can be channeled, to a large extent, into carbon dioxide decomposition. Together with our colleagues in France and the Netherlands, we experimentally demonstrated the validity of these theories. Moreover, the heat generated in the plasma is also beneficial for separating oxygen.”

By dissociating carbon dioxide molecules to produce green fuels and recycling chemicals, plasma technology may also aid in addressing climate change on Earth.

Journal Reference:

  1. V. Guerra, T. Silva, et al. Plasmas for in situ resource utilization on Mars: Fuels, life support, and agriculture. Journal of Applied Physics 132, 070902 (2022); DOI: 10.1063/5.0098011