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Scientists invent a new way to create breathable oxygen on Mars



Scientists have found a new way in which future Mars researchers may be able to generate their own oxygen.

Mars is far from Earth and can therefore generate breathable air on the ground. This would save money and effort if oxygen had to be transported from our own planet.

A research team discovered this new oxygen-generating reaction by studying comets . Most of these small ice worlds come from a remote area of ​​the solar system known as the Oort Cloud, far above Neptune's orbit. When the orbit of a comet reaches the sun, the heat pushes the comet ice into space. This reaction produces long tails that can extend over thousands of kilometers.

Related: 7 The Biggest Secrets of Mars

A research team from the California Institute of Technology (Caltech) in Pasadena found a new way to explain how comets molecular Generate oxygen, the two oxygen atoms, which come together to breathable air.

One already known method is the kinetic energy. A sublimating comet is a busy environment in which the solar wind (the constant stream of particles emanating from the sun) can push floating water molecules into the surface of the comet at high velocity. When oxygen-containing compounds are on the surface, water molecules in the care can break down oxygen atoms and produce molecular oxygen.

Molecular oxygen can also be produced by carbon dioxide reactions, say the team. (Carbon dioxide contains a single carbon atom and two oxygen atoms.) Former Caltech postdoctoral fellow Yunxi Yao and current Caltech chemical engineering professor Konstantinos Giapis simulated this reaction by bouncing carbon dioxide into gold foil. Since gold foil can not be oxidized, it should not produce molecular oxygen itself. However, when carbon dioxide penetrates the film at high speed, the gold surface releases molecular oxygen.

  Diagram of the conversion of carbon dioxide into molecular oxygen in a reactor.

Diagram for the conversion of carbon dioxide into molecular oxygen in a reactor.

(Photo: © Caltech)

"This meant that both oxygen atoms came from the same CO2 molecule [carbon dioxide] and split it in an extraordinary way," said Caltech representative in a statement .

Understanding How Carbon Dioxide Can Be Degraded Caltech chemistry professor Tom Miller and postdoctoral researcher Philip Shushkov turned a computer simulation into molecular oxygen.

One challenge in modeling the response is that the reacting molecules are very "excited," that is, they vibrate and rotate in complex ways. Researchers said.

"In general, excited molecules can lead to unusual chemistry, so we started it," Miller said in the statement. "But to our surprise, the excited state did not produce any molecular oxygen, instead the molecule disintegrated into other products."

Rather, the scientists found that extremely "bent" carbon dioxide molecules ̵

1; those with unusual geometry – can be generated without stimulating carbon dioxide. This in turn would produce oxygen.

When Yao and Giapis shattered the carbon dioxide molecules in gold foil, they electrically charged the individual carbon dioxide molecules and then accelerated them through an electric field. However, Giapis said that the reaction could be slower, which might explain why some oxygen is floating in the Martian atmosphere .

"One could throw a stone at some CO2 with sufficient speed [carbon dioxide] and achieve the same," he said in the statement. "It would have to move as fast as a comet or asteroid moves through space."

Related: How life on Mars could challenge colonists

Before, scientists thought that the tiny concentration of atmospheric oxygen on Mars is likely to be generated after ultraviolet sunlight Carbon dioxide molecules in the air of the red planet impinges. However, Giapis assumes that Mars oxygen could be generated even if dust particles accelerated to high velocity in the atmosphere collide with carbon dioxide molecules.

The reactor used Giapis is very low yield and produces only one or two oxygen molecules per 100 carbon dioxide molecules that move through the accelerator. However, Giapis said his reactor could one day be rebuilt to create breathable air for astronauts on Mars. And on Earth, the reactor can be useful to extract carbon dioxide (which is also a powerful greenhouse gas and the main driver of global warming ) from the atmosphere and convert it into oxygen.

Is it a terminal? No. Is it a device that can solve the problem with Mars? No, "he said," but it's a device that can do something very difficult. We are doing some crazy things with this reactor. "

An article based on Yao-led research was published last week in Nature Communications .

Incidentally, NASA will Oxygen-producing technologies on Mars will be tested by a technology demonstrator called MOXIE (Mars Oxygen In Situ Resource Use Experiment), which will fly aboard the agency's Mars Rover 2020 launching next summer and on the Red in February 2021 MOXIE will chemically share carbon dioxide electrochemically, and NASA wants to see if the method of supporting humans on the Red Planet can be extended.

Follow Elizabeth Howell on Twitter @howellspace Follow us on Twitter @SpaceTotcom and Facebook .


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