Plasma Technology Could Hold Key to Creating Oxygen Supply on Mars

A study published in the journal Plasma Sources Science and Technology argues that Mars, with its 96% carbon dioxide (CO2) atmosphere, has nearly ideal conditions for CO2 decomposition by non-thermal (non-equilibrium) plasmas.

Artist’s concept of a colony on Mars. Image credit: NASA.

Artist’s concept of a colony on Mars. Image credit: NASA.

Mars has resources that can be used for a sustainable settlement.

In particular, the local production of oxygen on the planet may help solve the problems of manufacturing fuel for coming back to Earth and of creating a breathable environment for a future outpost.

In fact, the main component of the Martian atmosphere is CO2 (95.9%), with smaller percentages of argon (1.9%), nitrogen (1.9%) and other gases.

CO2 can be converted into oxygen and carbon monoxide (CO).

“Sending a manned mission to Mars is one of the next major steps in our exploration of space. Creating a breathable environment, however, is a substantial challenge,” said study lead author Dr. Vasco Guerra, from the University of Lisbon in Portugal.

“Plasma reforming of CO2 on Earth is a growing field of research, prompted by the problems of climate change and production of solar fuels.”

“Low temperature plasmas are one of the best media for CO2 decomposition both by direct electron impact, and by transferring electron energy into vibrational excitation.”

Mars has excellent conditions for the in-situ resource utilization (ISRU) by plasma.

As well as its CO2 atmosphere, the cold surrounding atmosphere — on average about 210 Kelvin — may induce a stronger vibrational effect than that achievable on Earth.

The low atmospheric temperature also works to slow the reaction, giving additional time for the separation of molecules.

“The low temperature plasma decomposition method offers a twofold solution for a manned mission to Mars,” Dr. Guerra said.

“Not only would it provide a stable, reliable supply of oxygen, but as source of fuel as well, as CO has been proposed as to be used as a propellant mixture in rocket vehicles.”

“This ISRU approach could help significantly simplify the logistics of a mission to Mars.”

“It would allow for increased self-sufficiency, reduce the risks to the crew, and reduce costs by requiring fewer vehicles to carry out the mission.”

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Vasco Guerra et al. 2017. The case for in situ resource utilisation for oxygen production on Mars by non-equilibrium plasmas. Plasma Sources Sci Technol 26 (11): LT01; doi: 10.1088/1361-6595/aa8dcc

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