Californian researchers have found a new way to make oxygen on Mars

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One of the biggest problems with putting astronauts on Mars for any length of time, the planet’s weak atmosphere and lack of oxygen necessary to stay alive. Astronauts would have to wear a space suit most of the time to live and work on Mars.

However, a team of researchers from the California Institute of Technology can come up with a solution to this riddle – the astronauts could generate their own oxygen.

Published in the journal Nature Communications, the researchers looked to comets, which generate molecular oxygen, and discovered that oxygen can be produced with carbon dioxide reactions. The researchers crashed the carbon dioxide in gold foil, and the foil emitted molecular oxygen. The film can not be oxidized and must not lead to a molecular oxygen, but it did.


“At the time we thought that it would be impossible to combine the two oxygen atoms of a CO2 molecule, because CO2 is a linear molecule, and you would have to bend the molecule strongly for the work,” Konstantinos Giapis, an associate professor of chemical engineering at Caltech, said in a statement. “You do something really drastic to the molecule.”

In Giapis the reactor, carbon dioxide is converted into molecular oxygen. (Credit: Caltech)

Molecular oxygen into two atoms of oxygen, which together form to to breathe.

Giapis, along with former Caltech postdoctoral fellow Yunxi Yao, noted how rare this kind of reaction is in the study, called it “exotic” and “seldom observed, even with extreme optical or electronic excitation means.”

Comets are also able to make molecular oxygen with the aid of the kinetic energy, where the solar wind pushes the floating water molecules in the comet’s surface, according to

To understand how the carbon dioxide broke down into molecular oxygen, the researchers created a computer simulation turned out to be the “excited molecules” (enthusiastic meaning vibrating and rotating around a huge degree) move in complex ways.

“In general, excited molecules can lead to unusual chemistry, so we started with” Caltech chemistry professor Tom Miller added in the statement. “But, to our surprise, the excited state is not molecular oxygen. Instead, the molecule apart into other products. Finally, we found that a strongly bent CO2 can also be done without exciting the molecule, and that could produce O2.”

The device Giapis created works similar to a particle accelerator, according to the statement, giving a charge to the carbon dioxide molecules and turning them into ions. But anything with enough speed can produce the same results, he added.

“You could throw a stone with enough speed on some of CO2 and the realisation of the same thing,” he said. “It would have to travel about as fast as a comet or an asteroid travels through space.”

Of course, the possible applications for this are exciting, because Mars is not really a walk around a block, 33.9 million miles from Earth at its closest point to 250 million km at its farthest point.

This may help to explain why there are small traces of oxygen, seen high in the atmosphere. Giapis hopes that eventually the CO2 in the atmosphere of the Earth could be converted into oxygen, even if the yields are low, with only one or two oxygen molecules for every 100 CO2 molecules.

“It Is a final device? No. It Is a device that can solve the problem with Mars? No. But it is a device that can do something that is very difficult,” Giapis says. “We do some crazy things with this reactor.”


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