Mars’s unbreathable air is a certain way to meet your untimely demise if the severe temperatures and cosmic radiation don’t. In order to solve the latter problem, scientists have suggested harnessing plasma to convert the abundant carbon dioxide on Mars into the simpler carbon and oxygen.
Resource depletion on non-Earth planets is a major issue that prevents human settlements from being established there. No permanent human colony on Mars will be possible unless we figure out how to make consistent use of the resources already there.
The recent team suggested using non-thermal plasmas, which are electrically charged gases whose electron discharge can be channeled toward breaking the bond between carbon and oxygen atoms in a carbon dioxide molecule. In other words, non-thermal plasmas are a potential method for reducing carbon dioxide emissions. The group was able to show in the laboratory that they could get the temperature of a plasma down to that of Mars. Their findings were recently presented in a paper that was published in the Journal of Applied Physics.
Vasco Guerra, a physicist at the University of Lisbon in Portugal and the lead author of the recent paper, stated in an email to Gizmodo that “the natural conditions on Mars are nearly ideal to [in-situ resource utilization] by plasmas.” [In-situ resource utilization] refers to the process of extracting resources from their natural environments. “In particular, the composition of the atmosphere, as well as the pressure and temperature of the surrounding environment, all work in favor of a plasma process.”
On the surface of Mars, there has been evidence of oxygen production in the past. In December of last year, the MOXIE experiment that was housed on the NASA Perseverance rover was successful in removing a trace quantity (about 5 grams) of oxygen from the atmosphere of the planet. But MOXIE was only an experiment to see whether it was feasible to extract oxygen; now that this has been shown, humans can concentrate on figuring out how to make this extraction process more efficient.
Oxygen is essential for human life, but it also has practical use in the manufacture of useful products like fuels and fertilizers. Carbon monoxide is another possible rocket fuel. By extracting the Martian atmosphere’s individual components, humanity stands to gain a great deal.
In the future, this flexible system “may play a crucial role in the development of not just life-support systems on Mars but also feedstock and basic chemicals for processing fuels, construction materials, and fertilizers,” Guerra said.
It will be some time before people can have extended stays on Mars since non-thermal plasmas and the conducting membranes required to extract carbon dioxide and store the elements are yet nascent technology. However, they represent a forward movement or an outward movement toward a future that includes contact with other planets.