How we could make oxygen on Mars, plus fuel to get home

Future colonists on Mars could use plasma technology to make their own oxygen.

The atmosphere on Mars is 96 per cent carbon dioxide, says Vasco Guerra at the University of Lisbon in Portugal. This can be split to extract breathable oxygen and carbon monoxide, a fuel that could give us
a “gas station on the Red Planet”, he says. He and his team calculate that creating a carbon dioxide plasma — a mush of ions made by passing an electric current through a gas — could split carbon dioxide from oxygen more easily on Mars than on Earth.

The lower atmospheric pressure on Mars would allow us to create plasmas without the vacuum pumps or compressors necessary on Earth. Also, the temperature of around -60°C is just right to let the plasma more easily break one of the chemical bonds that keeps carbon and oxygen tightly bound, while preventing the carbon dioxide from re-forming.

For now, this is largely theoretical, but they say such a system needing only 150 to 200 Watts for 4 hours each 25-hour Mars day could produce 8 to 16 kilograms of oxygen. “The International Space Station currently consumes oxygen in the range of 2 to 5 kilograms per day, so this would be enough to support a small settlement,” says Guerra. Because the system wouldn’t require heat or additional pressure, it could be less cumbersome than other proposals, such as MOXIE, a system that splits carbon dioxide using electrolysis. This would need temperatures of 800°C and compressors.

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