Scientists recently confirmed that there was (and still is) abundant water on Mars. The discovery is huge not only because where there is water there is life, but also because it means that humans can potentially rely on that water for life support and fuel sources for future interplanetary missions, instead of carrying everything. from the earth.
Until now, there has been a big problem: almost all of the water on the Red Planet today exists in the form of salty ice, left over from ancient lakes and oceans of salt water. Turning it into usable fuels is a complicated and expensive process. First, the salt water must be separated from the water, usually through heating, and then the purified water must be electrolyzed to obtain oxygen and hydrogen.
A new invention by a group of engineers at Washington University is about to change that forever.
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In a study published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) On Monday, researchers at Washington University’s McKelvey School of Engineering set out the design for a special electrolyser capable of extracting hydrogen and oxygen directly from salt water. The system has been shown to function perfectly in a simulated Martian atmosphere at -36 ° C.
“Our approach provides a unique path to life support and fuel production for future human missions to Mars,” the study authors wrote in the abstract.
A traditional electrolyzer consists of an anode and a cathode separated by an electrolytic membrane. At the anode, the water reacts to form positively charged oxygen and hydrogen ions. Select hydrogen ions then flow across the electrolytic membrane to the cathode and form hydrogen gas by combining with electrons from an external circuit.
To modify this system for a saltwater environment, the Washington University lab used new materials for the anode and cathode. “Our brine electrolyzer incorporates a lead rutenate pyrochlore anode developed by our team in combination with platinum on a carbon cathode,” explained Vijay Ramani, lead author of the study. “These carefully designed components, coupled with the optimal use of traditional electrochemical engineering principles, have produced this high performance.”
According to the study, this electrolyser can produce 25 times more oxygen than the MOXIE oxygen generator aboard NASA’s Perseverance rover. MOXIE is short for “Mars Oxygen In-Situ Resource Utilization Experiment”.
“Our Martian brine electrolyser fundamentally changes the logistical calculation of missions to Mars and beyond,” added Ramani.
Before humans land on Mars, this system can also be used to electrolyze seawater on Earth in deep ocean explorations, such as creating oxygen on demand for submarines.