Mars: Indian-origin scientist-led team develops system to extract oxygen and hydrogen fuel

December 1, 2020


Washington, Dec 1: A team led by an Indian-origin scientist in the US has developed a new system that can extract oxygen and hydrogen fuel from the salty water on Mars, and may radically change the logistics of future missions to the Red Planet and beyond.

The researchers noted that Mars is very cold, and water that is not frozen is almost certainly full of salt from the Martian soil, which lowers its freezing temperature.

Using electricity to break the briny water down into oxygen and hydrogen fuel requires removing the salt, which is a cumbersome and a costly endeavour in a harsh, dangerous martian environment, they said.

The team, led by Vijay Ramani, a professor at the Washington University in the US, examined the new system in a simulated Martian atmosphere at minus 36 degrees Celsius. “Our Martian brine electrolyser radically changes the logistical calculus of missions to Mars and beyond. This technology is equally useful on Earth where it opens up the oceans as a viable oxygen and fuel source,” said Ramani.

In 2008, NASA’s Phoenix Mars Lander “touched and tasted” Martian water, vapours from melted ice dug up by the lander.

Since then, the European Space Agency’s Mars Express has discovered several underground ponds of water which remain in a liquid state thanks to the presence of magnesium perchlorate salt.

In the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), the researchers noted that in order to live — even temporarily — on Mars, not to mention to return to Earth, astronauts will need to manufacture some of the necessities, including water and fuel, on the Red Planet.

NASA’s Perseverance rover is en-route to Mars, carrying instruments that will use high-temperature electrolysis.
However, the Mars Oxygen In-Situ Resource Utilization Experiment (MOXIE) will be producing oxygen only, from the carbon dioxide in the air.

The system developed in Ramani’s lab can produce 25 times more oxygen than MOXIE using the same amount of power, said the researchers, adding it also produces hydrogen, which could be used to fuel astronauts’ trip home.

“Our novel brine electrolyser incorporates a lead ruthenate pyrochlore anode developed by our team in conjunction with a platinum on carbon cathode” Ramani said.

“These carefully designed components coupled with the optimal use of traditional electrochemical engineering principles has yielded this high performance,” he said.

The careful design and unique anode allow the system to function without the need for heating or purifying the water source, the researchers said.

“Paradoxically, the dissolved perchlorate in the water, so-called impurities, actually help in an environment like that of Mars,” said Shrihari Sankarasubramanian, a research scientist in Ramani’s group and joint first author of the research paper on the study.

“They prevent the water from freezing and also improve the performance of the electrolyser system by lowering the electrical resistance,” he said. Water electrolysers typically use highly purified, deionized water, which adds to the cost of the system, according to the researchers.

A system that can work with “sub-optimal” or salty water, such as the technology demonstrated by the team, can significantly enhance the economic value proposition of water electrolysers everywhere, even on the Earth, they said.

“Having demonstrated these electrolysers under demanding Martian conditions, we intend to also deploy them under much milder conditions on Earth to utilize brackish or salt water feeds to produce hydrogen and oxygen, for example through seawater electrolysis,” said Pralay Gayen, a postdoctoral research associate in Ramani’s group and also a joint first author on the study.

Such applications could be useful in the defence realm, creating oxygen on demand in submarines, for example, said the researchers, adding it could also provide oxygen as we explore uncharted environments in the deep sea.


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January 15,2021


Washington, Jan 15: The US space agency has revealed that the Covid-hit 2020 was also the warmest year on record, just barely exceeding the record set in 2016 by less than a tenth of a degree.

By most accounts, 2020 has been a rough year for the planet.

Massive wildfires scorched Australia, Siberia, and the US west coast -- and many of the fires were still burning during the busiest Atlantic hurricane season on record.

"This year has been a very striking example of what it's like to live under some of the most severe effects of climate change that we've been predicting," said Lesley Ott, a research meteorologist at NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in the US.

Human-produced greenhouse gas emissions are largely responsible for warming our planet.

"The natural processes Earth has for absorbing carbon dioxide released by human activities - plants and the ocean - just aren't enough to keep up with how much carbon dioxide we're putting into the atmosphere," said Gavin Schmidt, climate scientist and Director of NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies (GISS) in New York City.

According to NASA, carbon dioxide levels have increased by nearly 50 per cent since the 'Industrial Revolution' 250 years ago.

The amount of methane in the atmosphere has more than doubled.

As a result, during this period, Earth has warmed by just over 1 degree Celsius.

Climate modellers have predicted that as the planet warms, Earth will experience more severe heat waves and droughts, larger and more extreme wildfires, and longer and more intense hurricane seasons on average.

"The events of 2020 are consistent with what models have predicted: extreme climate events are more likely because of greenhouse gas emissions," NASA said in a statement late on Thursday.

Climate change has led to longer fire seasons, as vegetation dries out earlier and persistent high temperatures allow fires to burn longer.

This year, heat waves and droughts added fuel for the fires, setting the stage for more intense fires in 2020.

This year wasn't a record-breaker for ice loss at sea or on land.

The planet is losing about 13.1 per cent of Arctic sea ice by area each decade, according to sea ice minimum data from NASA and the National Snow and Ice Data Center in Boulder, Colorado.

The Arctic has lost over half of its summer minimum sea ice extent in the last few decades and the trend is still declining. In 2020, Arctic sea ice covered just 3.36 million square kms at its minimum.

This year brought one of the busiest and most intense Atlantic hurricane seasons on record, with 30 named storms.

The planet is also seeing more slow-travelling hurricanes that stall, bringing prolonged rainfall to an area, likely as a result of climate change.

"The large wildfires, intense hurricanes, and ice loss we saw in 2020 are direct consequences of human-induced climate change. And they're projected to continue and escalate into the next decade -- especially if human-induced greenhouse gas emissions continue at the current rate," said NASA.

"This isn't the new normal," said Schmidt. "This is a precursor of more to come."


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