In recent years, the race to bring people to Mars has heated up, with governments and private companies striving to be the first to reach the Red Planet. Despite the unique concepts and complex technologies required to achieve this goal, we may accomplish it by improving on what we already possess. Therefore, various studies are being conducted to see if we can use the current circumstances on Mars to power our spacecraft.
A group of engineers at the University of Cincinnati is working on converting greenhouse gases into fuel, which might help with the Earth’s climate issue and astronauts returning from Mars. The study, published in Nature Communications, focuses on using a carbon catalyst to convert carbon dioxide to methane, which can then be used in next-generation rocket engines. This process is based on the “Sabatier reaction,” which the International Space Station uses to remove carbon dioxide from the station’s interior and generate drinking water and waste methane.
Professor Jingjie Wu, one of the study’s co-authors, pointed out that the Martian atmosphere is 95 percent carbon dioxide, so utilizing this technology could allow humanity to carry only half of the fuel they’d need back to Earth while making the rest on Mars.
“It’s like a gas station on Mars,” Wu shared. “You could easily pump carbon dioxide through this reactor and produce methane for a rocket.”
Wu’s team seeks to identify the most efficient approach to recycle carbon dioxide for methane production. The tests use a range of catalysts, such as graphene quantum dots (nano-scale layers of carbon dust), to increase the amount of methane produced.
Apart from future Mars gas stations, Wu believes that the technique he is developing would be helpful in power plants that emit tons of CO2. Since the pollutants are converted into fuel and water, the conversion technology can reduce pollution while providing new economic opportunities.
“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,” Wu explained. “In the next ten years, we’ll have a lot of startup companies to commercialize this technique.”
Other than Wu’s research, several scientists are working on techniques to create rocket fuel on Mars. For example, zinc has been investigated as a catalyst for methane generation from carbon dioxide by a team of researchers at the University of California, Irvine. The novel technology, pioneered by physics and astronomy professor Houlin Xin, is based on a two-step procedure for producing breathing oxygen aboard the International Space Station utilizing hydrogen and oxygen electrolysis.
The existing two-step methodology demands massive infrastructure, but Xin’s method is more adaptable since it lowers the process to a single stage. As a result, it is more suitable to the conditions and materials found on the Red Planet.
“The process we developed bypasses the water-to-hydrogen process and instead efficiently converts CO2 into methane with high selectivity,” Xin shared.
While the researchers investigate the technology’s concept, they realize that much more investigation is required.
Both SpaceX and Blue Origin are developing methane-fueled rockets. Furthermore, NASA has also tested liquid methane-fueled rocket engines for use in Mars landers and future missions.
The Raptor engine aboard SpaceX’s Starship was created with Mars in sight. It will use methane as rocket fuel in combination with liquid oxygen, releasing carbon dioxide and water vapor into the atmosphere. In addition, SpaceX is investigating using the Sabatier reaction to turn carbon dioxide into methane using wind and solar electricity to generate additional rocket fuel.
Musk replied to concerns that methane is responsible for 20% of global emissions by encouraging his company’s stockholders not to “worry too much about methane,” defending his argument by saying, “Methane quickly breaks down into CO2,” adding, “Methane is not a stable molecule, CO2 is extremely stable.”
Of course, methane depletes the atmosphere in around 12 years, but it can cause significant damage in that duration. And, with Musk revealing intentions to launch 1,000 rockets to Mars, the amount of methane emissions might be massive.
For space explorers, reaching Mars isn’t like reaching Mount Everest. Nevertheless, the planet may have an essential role in the survival of the human species. Stephen Hawking once stated that he believes we only have a hundred years or so on Earth and that Mars is the closest thing we have to a backup plan right now. The difficulty is that we haven’t even come close to having stepped on it. Nevertheless, we have no shortage of bright minds working to turn humanity into a multi-planetary species among those already in the space sector. So let us wait and discover what the future has in store for us!