Plasma Technology May Make it Possible to Make Oxygen on Mars

Fagjun | Published 2017-11-05 04:21

Building a future colony on Mars just became more of a possibility because of findings that plasma technology can enable colonists to produce oxygen on Mars.

We're getting closer and closer to building a Martian colony [Illustration by Ville Ericsson]



There’s been a lot of talk lately about building a colony on Mars. For the longest time, we’ve been fantasizing about building a city on the planet, but for just as long, it has seemed like nothing more than a pipe dream. However, recent developments and discoveries have been making this pipe dream seem more and more possible. There are now timelines and announcements of plans to colonize Mars, as well as preparations for living on our red neighbor, and even ideas on how to make the most of what it has to offer.


However, there has always been one glaring problem: oxygen, or the lack of it, on Mars. With the planet’s atmosphere being 96% carbon dioxide, we’d have to wear helmets all the time if we ever want to live there.

Acquiring Oxygen

Illustration by Caroline Gasnier



According to a new study, however, the scenario above doesn’t necessarily have to be the case. In fact, the presence of carbon dioxide might actually give future colonists an important advantage. Researchers say that a process called decomposition can extract breathable oxygen from carbon dioxide.


Conditions in Mars’s atmosphere make it possible for non-thermal or non-equilibrium plasma to be used for the efficient production of oxygen. Mars has low atmospheric pressure, which makes it possible to produce plasmas without the need for vacuum pumps or compressors. Sub-zero temperatures also allow the plasma to break the bond between carbon and oxygen while preventing the re-formation of carbon dioxide.


"Plasma reforming of CO2 on Earth is a growing field of research, prompted by the problems of climate change and production of solar fuels,” says Dr. Vasco Guerra, lead author of the study. “Low temperature plasmas are one of the best media for CO2 decomposition--the split-up of the molecule into oxygen and carbon monoxide--both by direct electron impact, and by transferring electron energy into vibrational excitation."


If you take the oxygen out of carbon dioxide, however, you’d be left with carbon monoxide. This is a pretty harmful gas on Earth, so will it be as hazardous on Mars?

Ease of Transport

Illustration by Robert McCall



The answer, surprisingly, is no. In fact, carbon monoxide is likely to serve as fuel for rockets. This means that when colonizers get to Mars, they have a possible fuel source that can take them back home.


Of course, for now, these are all just theoretical. However, according to projections, a plasma system that only needs 150 to 200 watts for four hours every 25-hour Martian day can already produce eight to 16 kilograms of oxygen. The International Space Station only uses up about two to five kilograms per day, which means that eight to 16 kilograms may indeed be able to support a small Martian colony.


Another plus to this system is that it’s not as cumbersome as other similar projects, and does not have as many requirements. It doesn’t need extra heat or pressure. Thus, the system and its necessary parts will be easier to bring over to Mars from Earth.

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