There are many challenges that humanity has to overcome to go farther into space than ever before, and one of those is lack of oxygen. Researchers from Caltech have a new device that may one day be key to a solution. They've developed a method to extract oxygen from carbon dioxide inspired by comets, and believe it could be used for future interplanetary missions as well as a way to reduce greenhouse gases in our atmosphere.
The tech is discussed in the latest issue of Nature Communications. Chemical reactions require energy, usually in the form of heat. Kinetic energy can also be employed to start a chemical reaction. Researchers know that water molecules released by comets can be accelerated by the solar wind, and these release oxygen when they're dropped back on the comet's surface with considerable impact.
Given that comets can also emit carbon dioxide, the team was curious to see if the same process also happens for CO2. They set up an experiment where they accelerated carbon dioxide molecules and made them collide with a gold foil surface. Gold is an inert element so researchers were certain that any oxygen formed would come from the chemical reaction. While this seems straight forward, the researchers were not sure it would happen at all.
"At the time we thought it would be impossible to combine the two oxygen atoms of a CO2 molecule together because CO2 is a linear molecule, and you would have to bend the molecule severely for it to work," senior author Professor Konstantinos P. Giapis said in a statement. "You're doing something really drastic to the molecule."
Luckily, the device did work and the researchers found a new way of generating oxygen, something which will be vital for future long-term travel to places like Mars.
The device works like a mini particle accelerator. The carbon dioxide molecule is ionized, having an electron taken away. The molecule, which is now electrically charged, can be accelerated using an electric field, and a collision would break the molecule apart releasing oxygen. Obviously, the device has drawbacks, which currently stand as not being particularly efficient. For every 100 molecules of carbon dioxide accelerated, the reactor only yields one or two oxygen molecules.
"Is it a final device? No. Is it a device that can solve the problem with Mars? No. But it is a device that can do something that is very hard," Giapis stated. "We are doing some crazy things with this reactor."
We hope that the team and other researchers can find a way to improve the device’s yield, as it really does sound like a fantastic technology.