Juggling Molecules on Mars

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?

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