The fourth naturally occurring state of matter, plasma, includes free-floating charged particles such as electrons and ions. Due to their light weight and easy acceleration by electric fields, electrons can reach incredibly high energies.
An international team of researchers developed a method to generate and separate oxygen in the Martian environment using plasma. This plasma-based method uses and processes local resources to create products on Mars.
The Red Planet’s atmosphere consists mostly of carbon dioxide, which can be fissioned to produce oxygen. Its pressure is optimal for plasma ignition, making it practically ideal for in situ resource consumption by plasmas.
However, there are two main problems with oxygen production on Mars:
- The decomposition of carbon dioxide molecules to extract oxygen.
- The separation of the oxygen produced from a gas mixture containing, for example, carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide.
Author Vasco Guerra from the University of Lisbon said: “We look at these two steps holistically to solve both challenges at the same time. This is where plasmas can help.”
“When spherical electrons collide with a carbon dioxide molecule, they can decompose it directly or transfer energy to make it vibrate. Much of this energy can be channeled into carbon dioxide decomposition. Together with our colleagues in France and the Netherlands, we have experimentally proven the validity of these theories. In addition, the heat generated in the plasma is also beneficial for the separation of oxygen.”
By dissociating carbon dioxide molecules to produce green fuels and recycle chemicals, plasma technology can also help address climate change on Earth.
- V. Guerra, T. Silva, et al. Plasmas for in situ resource use on Mars: fuels, life support and agriculture. Journal of Applied Physics 132, 070902 (2022); DOI: 10.1063/5.0098011