Breathing oxygen on Mars using plasma

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The atmosphere of Mars consists of 95% carbon dioxide, 3% nitrogen, 1.6% argon and traces of oxygen, water and methane. It is therefore very different from the terrestrial atmosphere and unfit for humans.

Now, the existing cold plasma technology can convert the Martian CO2 atmosphere to breathable oxygen for exploratory astronauts, according to the Portuguese study.
They were researchers from the universities of Lisbon and Porto, who believed that future missions with Mars crew could make their own oxygen to explore the surface from the local atmosphere.

According to the main author of this study, published in the journal Plasma Sources Science and Technology, Vasco Guerra, “Sending a manned mission to Mars is one of the next important steps in our exploration of space. Creating a breathable environment, however, is a substantial challenge”.

Vasco Guerra and his colleagues are now investigating cold plasma, an ionized gas at low temperatures, but containing electrons and fast-moving ions, to convert CO2 emissions from industrial processes into hydrocarbon fuels using solar energy.

“Low-temperature plasmas are therefore one of the best means for the decomposition of CO2 – the division of the molecule into oxygen and carbon monoxide – both by the direct impact of electrons and by the transfer of electrical energy to the vibratory excitation”, explained Guerra.

Mars offers excellent conditions to apply this process to the CO2 atmosphere – known as In-Situ Resource Utilization (ISRU) – low surface temperatures can even make the process more effective by slowing the reaction so that more molecules can be converted and separated into a breathable stream and a stream of carbon monoxide.

“Carbon monoxide has been proposed to be used as a propellant blend in rocket vehicles. The low-temperature plasma decomposition method provides a dual solution for a manned mission to Mars. Not only would it provide a stable and reliable supply of oxygen, but also a source of fuel”, said Vasco Guerra.

The researcher said that using this system “could help significantly simplify the logistics of a mission to Mars. It would also “increase self-sufficiency, reduce team risk and reduce costs by requiring fewer vehicles to carry out the mission”.

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