>CES#1: Juggling Molecules on Mars

> Hi, there. Welcome to the first edition of Chemical Engineering in Space.

So much of what we come into contact with is made of four elements – carbon, hydrogen, oxygen and nitrogen – the main elements of living systems. Add phosphorous and sulphur and you have what comprises 98% of all living systems.

The chemistry for juggling these four atoms – C, H, O, N – has been around for a long time.

Engineers and scientists have been confident enough in the chemistry and the various ways of manipulating them to propose various sets of reactions for use in gathering resources out in the vast reaches of space, as part of human exploration. This is part of a wider field of study called In Situ Resource Utilisation (ISRU), which has formed a key part of plans to explore other part of the solar system, particularly Mars, for the better part of two decades.

In the Mars Direct concept Robert Zubrin proposed using the well known Sabatier reaction:

CO2 + 4H2 => CH4 + 2 H2O

To react hydrogen with the Martian atmosphere to produce methane and water – very useful things to have on the red planet. The methane would be stored and kept for use as rocket fuel.

Methane and oxygen are a handy combination. In terms of chemical rocket propellant candidates, the Specific Impulse (Isp) of Methane and Oxygen at 3700 m/s is second only to Hydrogen and Oxygen at 4500 m/s (to convert to seconds of impulse multiply by 0.102).

Meanwhile the water from the Sabatier reaction would be split via very familiar electrolysis reaction:

2 H2O => 2H2 + O2

The idea was that only the hydrogen would need to be transported to the Red Plant. H2 weighs a lot less than CH4, freeing up space and payload for the 6 months transit to Mars.

Various test rigs were constructed on Earth, using analogues of the Martian atmosphere, which has been well characteristed since Viking. Mars has a lot of CO2 – more than 95% of the atmosphere – and a nice analogue of the Martion atmosphere right down to the low pressure could be similated for the rig. The CO2 is initially absorbed onto zeolite (an ever popular sorbent) under conditions simulating the Martian night. During the Martian ‘day’ the CO2 desorbs and passes into the Sabatier reaction vessel with the H2, which is heated to 300C. Reaction then occurs in the presence of the right catalyst (in this case pebbles of ruthenium on alumina). The water from the reaction is condensed out and passed to the electrolysis unit.

Still awake?

OK. Not surprisingly scientists and engineers planning Mars missions were concerned about overly complex systems forming such major part of a critical path.

Current plans for ISRU on Mars revolve around direct dissociation of the Martian atmosphere i.e.

2 CO2 => 2 CO + O2

[BTW if you could pull off this reaction at room temperature on Earth you would be an instant billionaire]

The current Mars Design Reference Mission proposes the production of oxygen on Mars through direct dissociation. Methane will be transported directly from Earth, with the ascent vehicle still using the tasty combination of methane and oxygen in its rocket engines.

So how is the CO2 pulled apart? There are many contenders, all of which uses a lot of energy. On Mars that energy is currently planned to be delivered by a 30 kW fission power system.

The front-runner for CO2 dissociation is thermal decomposition, followed by isolation of the O2 using a zirconia electrolytic membrane at high temperatures.

This system was developed for its first flight demonstration as the Oxygen Generator Subsystem (OGS) on the defunct Mars Surveyor Lander, which would have been launched in 2001 (but was cancelled following a string of Mars mission failures – Mars Climate Orbiter (1999), Mars Polar Lander (1999), Deep Space 2 Probes 2 (1999). That was a bad year. ).

The OGS was to demonstrate the production of oxygen from the Martian atmosphere using the zirconia solid-oxide oxygen generator hardware. This unit was designed to electrolyze CO2 at 750C (1382 F). The Yttria Stabilized zirconia material – once a voltage is applied across it – acts as a oxygen pump allowing the O2 to pass through it and be collected. The plan was to run the unit about ten times on the surface.

As I mentioned there were various contenders for the process. Such as molten carbonate cells, which operate around 550C with platinum electrodes immersed in a bulk reservoir of molten carbonate. Personally, the engineer in me shudders at the thought of trying to manage any sort of molten system that remotely.

The final system for CO2 decomposition used on Mars is probably still a work in progress. It will be interesting to see what develops there.

The fact is the initially proposed Sabatier reactions did not produce enough O2 to react with the methane, so some form of CO2 splitting process was still required.

So there are some things we can do to juggle molecules when we get to Mars.

Is everyone out there looking forward to getting to the Red Planet and grappling with what we find there? Who thinks we should not go? And why not?


  1. >I'm still baffled why we aren't actually there yet. The only way I would be in favor of not going to Mars would be if we magically had the tech to completely bypass it for the stars.

  2. >Mars is such a tempting combination of "Everything we need to live there" with "Unlivable." A heady combination of danger and potential, with the promise of finding at least fossilized evidence of life, if not some living bacteria analogues a bit further down than the rovers are equiped to explore.Of course, I'm tempted to try a bit of terraforming, sling in some of those icy asteroids they're finding, thicken up the atmosphere . . .

  3. >I'm hoping that we'll be there soon. If we can manage the right tech, we can making living there and/or importing resources from Mars profitable. Hmmm…

  4. >Chris,You just prompted me to track down some stuff I've been thinking about. Metallugy's going to have to get clever on Mars, with neither limestone nor coal around for the basic refining. Now, one can always melt with an electric arc furnace, but you really need CO to grab the Oxygen off the metal atom, and hot limestone is such a plentiful, cheap and easy source on Earth, I'll bet not much experimentation's been done on substitutes.When you get around to disassociating the CO2, be sure and collect the CO as well as the O2, both are going to be badly needed.

  5. >(smile)Tch. Brendan you are SO ignorant! On Mars they have Canals not channels! Channels are what you have in Channel country, which is like Mars only drier. Thanks for a fantastic post, Chris. Of course I have ideas. And yes, Mars ASAP!

  6. >Hi, Brendan. Of course at the moment they are all shielded from view by advanced technologies. The Martian's did well to get that in place and move the other cities underground in the early 19th century. Just in time really:)

  7. >Hi, Chris. But we have to get to Mars first to unearth the ancient portal machines of the vanished race that once lived there.How we will all kick ourselves when we realise that that ancient tech has been waiting in the sand all this time, so close. . . 🙂

  8. >Hi, Matapam. We only need to get the atmospheric pressure up to 5psi, then we can use inflatable habs rather than pressured vessels & use a 60% oxy 40% nitrogen mix in the habs. Just think how much fun we can have actually deliberately causing a greenhouse effect:)CO is a very useful chemical. I am very keen to see what research turns up for more energy efficient ways of dissociating the CO2. You can also use CO with H2 to produce liquid fuels & methane via the Fischer Tropsch process.Who knows we might even strike it lucky and find some ancient reefs from Mars's vanished oceans:)

  9. >Hi, Jim. Mars is really tantalising. I think we can certainly make a living there and support ourselves. In terms of resources, I think the economics will look better grapping that stuff from celestial bodies with less gravity – then there is less penalty for getting the stuff back off the surface.But who knows what we will find? I still think there may be some weird ultaheavy elements we have no encountered yet – improbably elements that hang together through some chemistry we don't know yet.

  10. >All those icy bodies out there. Lots of time, extremely low temps, so rare chemical combinations may get perserved rather than immediately falling apart.And on their surface, a crust of stardust from four billion years of supernovas.However much I love Mars, and invent lawyers to populate its deep caverns, I'm starting to think the small distant bodies may be more rewarding.

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