Life on Mars: Astronauts living on Red Planet could extract O2 from water with new device

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Mars is a very cold planet, with an average temperature of -36 degrees Celsius. So while The Red Planet has water, these bone-chilling temperatures mean that either the water is completely frozen or is extremely salty, having been absorbing salts from the Martian soils for billions of years.

Salt water is not drinkable and on Earth, scientists use electricity to break down salty water into oxygen and fuel.

To take the equipment to Mars which would be needed to do that would be extremely costly, and would take up precious cargo space on rockets to the Red Planet.

However, researchers at the Engineers at the McKelvey School of Engineering at Washington University in St Louis have developed a system which allows them to coerce oxygen and fuel out of salt water.

This could allow future Martian residents to not only have breathable oxygen, which they will need plenty of for their tanks or abodes, but also fuel, which could be topped up on the Red Planet in preparation for a potential journey home.

Furthermore, they could have a vast supply of previously undrinkable water.

The small device is an electrolyzer but allows the system to function without the need for heating or purifying the water source.

On Earth, electrolyzers use highly purified, deionized water to help extract oxygen and fuel from salt water.

However, that amount of pure water would not be able to be carried to Mars, so the researchers created a small system which can be used only with salty water, meaning no extra water would need to be taken to the Red Planet.

Vijay Ramani, of the Department of Energy, Environmental & Chemical Engineering, said: “Our novel brine electrolyzer incorporates a lead ruthenate pyrochlore anode developed by our team in conjunction with a platinum on carbon cathode.

“These carefully designed components coupled with the optimal use of traditional electrochemical engineering principles has yielded this high performance.”

Shrihari Sankarasubramanian, a research scientist and joint first author of the paper, added: “Paradoxically, the dissolved perchlorate in the water, so-called impurities, actually help in an environment like that of Mars.

“They prevent the water from freezing and also improve the performance of the electrolyzer system by lowering the electrical resistance.”

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Prof Ramani said the technology could be of equal useful on Earth, according to the research published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).

He continued: “Our Martian brine electrolyzer radically changes the logistical calculus of missions to Mars and beyond.

“This technology is equally useful on Earth where it opens up the oceans as a viable oxygen and fuel source.”

Pralay Gayen, a postdoctoral research associate in Prof Ramani’s group and also a joint first author on this study, said: “Having demonstrated these electrolyzers under demanding Martian conditions, we intend to also deploy them under much milder conditions on Earth to utilise brackish or salt water feeds to produce hydrogen and oxygen, for example through seawater electrolysis.”

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