Tue. Dec 7th, 2021

A computer-generated view of Mars.

A computer-generated view of Mars.
Pictures: NASA / JPL-Caltech

New research details a biological solution for rocket fuel production on Mars, but significant obstacles need to be overcome to make this intriguing concept work.

With plans to go to Mars in the next decade, NASA is still sorting out the fuel situation; Launching a rocket on the Red Planet isn’t a problem – it’s getting a car off the surface for a homecoming trip that is creating a challenge. Large amounts of methane and liquid nitrogen will be needed to make the necessary propellants, but these key components of rocket fuel are as rare as the fuel refineries on Mars.

New Research It is estimated that it will cost $ 8 billion to send 30 tons of methane and liquid oxygen to Mars, according to Nature Communications. And that’s just for a single launch with a 500-ton payload! With the financial support of NASA’s Innovative Advanced Concept Program, the authors of the new paper have come up with a very different solution, where the basic ingredients needed to make propellants can be found directly on the Red Planet.

These elements include carbon dioxide, frozen water and sunlight. Cyanobacteria, also known as blue-green algae, and a bioengineering strain E. coli Bacteria will be brought to Mars from Earth, along with the materials needed to create a large array of photobiorectors. Nick Crewer, the first author of the new study and a researcher at Georgia Tech’s School of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering, and his colleagues have outlined a production strategy where cyanobacteria produce sugars powered by sunlight and carbon dioxide. E. coli Is then transformed into an effective propellant.

The artist's idea of ​​a possible bioreactor on Mars.

The artist’s idea of ​​a possible bioreactor on Mars.
Pictures: BOKO Mobile Study

Known as 2,3-butanediol, it is not the most powerful propellant ever invented, but in a relatively low-gravity environment on Mars, this rocket fuel will accomplish the task, the researchers argue. As a compound, 2,3-butanediol is already well-known because it is used in rubber production, but scientists have not yet considered using it as a propellant.

Other scientists believe that methane is the only solution, “since it is a high-energy fuel that can be chemically made from large amounts of carbon dioxide on Mars,” said Pamela Peralta-Yahya, co-author of the study and a Georgia Tech School of Chemistry and Biochemistry The associate professor explained Gizmodo in an email “One of the key insights of this paper is that a wide range of chemicals can be considered for use as conductors because Mars has one-third of Earth’s gravitational force – so you can use a low-energy dense rocket propellant.”

The plastic materials sent to Mars will be combined into a photobiorector array the size of four football fields. Photosynthesis and carbon dioxide will enable the growth of cyanobacteria, while enzymes in a separate reactor will break down microorganisms into sugars. As Crower noted in a press release, “Biology is especially good at converting CO2 into useful products,” making it “suitable for making rocket fuel.” A. E. coli In stages, separating the propellant from the fermentation broth will result in 95% purity, according to the paper.

Organic production of the Martin rocket propellant will require 32% less energy than the chemical solution proposed by NASA – i.e. the plan To send large amounts of methane to Mars. It is Will produce 44 tons of extra clean oxygen, which will be put to good use by astronauts. What’s more, the proposed chemical solution will produce carbon monoxide as a by-product, “which needs to be scrubbed,” Peralta-Yahya said. “Water electrolysis has been envisioned, but that chemical … the technique is at a low-tech preparation level,” he added.

To reduce the overall cost of the effort, it is less obvious, because this solution will require 2.8-times more payload mass than the proposed chemical techniques, scientists say. That’s significant. Researchers need to reduce the weight of equipment, such as reducing the size of photobiorectors.

A “key contribution” to the new paper is the identification of “achievable” optimization solutions that reduce payload mass and use 59% less energy than NASA’s methane. Plan, Explained Peralta-Yahya. “Such optimization includes improving the growth rate of cyanobacteria at cold temperatures, which will lead to smaller cyanobacteria farms,” he added.

Matthew Rielff, a Georgia tech engineer and co-author of the study, said the team would need to conduct tests to show that cyanobacteria could actually grow on Mars. The team needs to “consider the differences in the solar spectrum on Mars due to the distance from the sun and the lack of atmospheric filtering of sunlight,” he explained in an email, as well as keeping in mind that “high ultraviolet levels can cause damage. Cyanobacteria.”

Researchers also need to be careful about contaminating Mars with our germs. And containing cyanobacteria safely E. coli It would be a necessary step to ensure that astronomers can trace the signs of past life on Mars without the intervention of terrestrial organisms.

NASA’s current planetary safety guidelines explicitly prohibit sending germs to the surface of other planets, but as Peralta-Yahya explains, “biotechnology applications on Mars have the potential to provide unique advantages over chemical processes.” To keep their solutions safe, the team will develop and test a number of containment strategies, such as physical disabilities, kill switches, and engineer germs unable to survive outside the reactor.

Scientists have proposed an interesting solution to a serious problem. Yes, there is plenty of work left, but it is a good start. Mars may be a barren desert, but it is not entirely without resources. We just have to find a way to use them to our best advantage.

More: Mars colonists could use their own blood to make concrete, new research suggests.

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