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Researchers Use Comet Science for Making Oxygen from Carbon Dioxide for Space Colonization

May 30, 2019 (EIRNS)—A group of scientists has developed a small device that can make molecular oxygen (O₂) from carbon dioxide (CO₂) that can be used aboard spacecraft, space stations, and by colonies on the Moon or Mars. The implications of such a development are obviously far-reaching. The team was led by Dr. Konstantinos P. Giapis, a Professor of Chemical Engineering at the California Institute of Technology (Caltech), and included Yunxi Yao, Philip Shushkov, and Thomas F. Miller III, all of whom work with Giapis at Caltech’s Chemistry and Chemical Engineering Department.

In their statement, released May 24, the team wrote:

“One place molecular oxygen does appear outside of Earth is in the wisps of gas streaming off comets. ... Giapis’s research shows that some unusual reactions can occur by providing kinetic energy. When water molecules are shot like extremely tiny bullets onto surfaces containing oxygen, such as sand or rust, the water molecule can rip off that oxygen to produce molecular oxygen. This reaction occurs on comets when water molecules vaporize from the surface and are then accelerated by the solar wind until they crash back into the comet at high speed.

“Comets, however, also emit carbon dioxide (CO₂). Giapis and Yao wanted to test if CO₂ could also produce molecular oxygen in collisions with the comet surface. When they found O₂ in the stream of gases coming off the comet, they wanted to confirm that the reaction was similar to water’s reaction. They designed an experiment to crash CO₂ onto the inert surface of gold foil, which cannot be oxidized and should not produce molecular oxygen. Nonetheless, O₂ continued to be emitted from the gold surface. This meant that both atoms of oxygen come from the same CO₂ molecule, effectively splitting it in an extraordinary manner.”

In an interview today with Athens-Macedonian News Agency, Giapis, who has his degree in chemical engineering from National Technical University in Athens, Greece, explained that the device involves a chemical reaction driven by kinetic energy that “has allowed us to design a small plasma reactor, a portable device for producing oxygen that is the size of a coffee mug, which can function in the low-pressure atmosphere of Mars and utilizes other processes, along with the specific reaction, to produce much more oxygen. This technology is now available for testing and provides a viable alternative for breathing on Mars.”

While the experimental plasma reactor generates just 1 or 2 molecules of O₂ for every 100 molecules of CO₂, Giapis believes that its performance can be improved to produce enough oxygen for astronauts on Mars to breathe.

“Is this the final device? No. Is it a device that could solve the problem on Mars? No. It is, however, a device that can do something very difficult. We can do some crazy things with this reactor,” he told the news agency.

Giapis had previously conducted research into why comets can generate oxygen around them, which led him to focus on chemical reactions driven by kinetic energy rather than by heat. His team found that molecular oxygen can be generated by bombarding a gold sheet at high speeds with carbon dioxide which then breaks apart, releasing oxygen molecules. Functioning like a small particle accelerator, the device converts the carbon dioxide molecules into ions and then accelerates the electrically-charged particles with the help of an electric field, which then strikes a surface at high speed, generating oxygen.

The research was funded by the U.S. National Science Foundation, the Department of Energy, and the Joint Center for Artificial Photosynthesis (JCAP). Giapis published a scientific paper on the devise on May 24 in Nature magazine, in addition to the statement released last week.

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