The ‘Martian Fuel’ is made by a Carbon Dioxide Reactor

There are only two ways to return people from Mars. One option is to carry all of the return fuel with you when you launch from Earth, which is both difficult and expensive. The second option is to produce the return fuel on-site using Martian resources. But how exactly?

Engineers at the University of Cincinnati are working on new ways to convert greenhouse gases into fuel in order to combat climate change and return astronauts to Earth from Mars.

Jingjie Wu, an assistant professor in the UC College of Engineering and Applied Science, and his students used a carbon catalyst in a reactor to convert carbon dioxide to methane. The “Sabatier reaction,” named after the late French chemist Paul Sabatier, is a process used by the International Space Station to scrub carbon dioxide from the air astronauts breathe while also producing rocket fuel to keep the station in high orbit. Wu, on the other hand, is thinking much bigger.

The Martian atmosphere is almost entirely made up of carbon dioxide. According to Wu, astronauts could save half the fuel needed for a return trip home by manufacturing what they need on Mars once they arrive. “It’s similar to a gas station on Mars. This reactor could easily be pumped with carbon dioxide to produce methane for a rocket “Wu stated.

Engineers are developing new ways to convert greenhouse gases to fuel to address climate change and get astronauts home from Mars.

The study, co-authored by Rice University, Shanghai University, and East China University of Science and Technology, was published in the journal Nature Communications.

Wu began his career in chemical engineering by researching fuel cells for electric vehicles, but about ten years ago he began investigating carbon dioxide conversion in his chemical engineering lab. “I realized that greenhouse gases would be a major issue in society,” Wu said. “Many countries have recognized that carbon dioxide is a major issue for our society’s long-term development. That is why I believe we must achieve carbon neutrality.”

The Biden Administration has set a goal of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by half by 2030 and transitioning to a renewable-energy-based economy by 2050. “That means we’ll have to recycle CO2,” Wu explained.

Carbon dioxide reactor makes ‘Martian fuel’

Wu and his students, including lead author and UC doctoral candidate Tianyu Zhang, are experimenting with various catalysts, such as graphene quantum dots, which are nanometer-sized layers of carbon that can increase methane yield.

Wu believes the process has the potential to help mitigate climate change. However, it has a significant commercial advantage in producing fuel as a byproduct. “The process is 100 times more productive than it was even ten years ago.” As a result, you can expect progress to accelerate,” Wu said. “We’ll have a lot of startup companies to commercialize this technique in the next ten years.”

Wu’s students use various catalysts to produce not only methane but also ethylene. Ethylene, known as the world’s most important chemical, is used in the production of plastics, rubber, synthetic clothing, and other products. “Green energy will be extremely important. “It will be a massive market in the future. So I wanted to work on it,” Zhang said.

According to Wu, generating fuel from carbon dioxide becomes more commercially viable when combined with renewable energy sources such as solar or wind power. “Right now, we have a surplus of green energy that we are wasting. This excess renewable energy can be stored in chemicals “He stated. The process is scalable for use in power plants that produce tons of CO2. It’s also efficient because the conversion can happen right where the excess carbon dioxide is produced.

Wu believes that advances in carbon dioxide fuel production make him more confident that humans will set foot on Mars within his lifetime. “Right now, if you want to return from Mars, you’d need twice as much fuel, which is very heavy,” he explained. “And other fuels will be required in the future. As a result, we can make methanol from carbon dioxide and use it to make other downstream materials. Maybe one day we’ll be able to live on Mars.”

According to Wu, a mission to Mars would only require half as much fuel, significantly reducing spacecraft weight and making interplanetary space flight both cheaper and more efficient. However, the system has important applications on Earth as well, he added.