Making Martian rocket biofuel on Mars


Oct 27, 2021 (Nanowerk News) Researchers on the Georgia Institute of Technology have developed an idea that may make Martian rocket gasoline, on Mars, that could possibly be used to launch future astronauts again to Earth. The bioproduction course of would use three assets native to the pink planet: carbon dioxide, daylight, and frozen water. It would additionally embody transporting two microbes to Mars. The first can be cyanobacteria (algae), which might take CO2 from the Martian ambiance and use daylight to create sugars. An engineered E. coli, which might be shipped from Earth, would convert these sugars right into a Mars-specific propellant for rockets and different propulsion units. The Martian propellant, which known as 2,3-butanediol, is presently in existence, could be created by E. coli, and, on Earth, is used to make polymers for manufacturing of rubber. The course of is printed in a paper printed within the journal Nature Communications (“Designing the bioproduction of Martian rocket propellant via a biotechnology-enabled in situ resource utilization strategy”). Artist’s conception of astronauts and human habitats on Mars. (Image: NASA) Rocket engines departing Mars are presently deliberate to be fueled by methane and liquid oxygen (LOX). Neither exist on the pink planet, which suggests they might must be transported from Earth to energy a return spacecraft into Martian orbit. That transportation is pricey: ferrying the wanted 30 tons of methane and LOX is estimated to price round $8 billion. To cut back this price, NASA has proposed utilizing chemical catalysis to transform Martian carbon dioxide into LOX, although this nonetheless requires methane to be transported from Earth. As another, Georgia Tech researchers suggest a biotechnology based mostly in situ useful resource utilization (bio-ISRU) technique that may produce each the propellant and LOX from CO2. The researchers say making the propellant on Mars utilizing Martian assets might assist cut back mission price. Additionally, the bio-ISRU course of generates 44 tons of extra clear oxygen that could possibly be put aside to make use of for different functions, corresponding to supporting human colonization. “Carbon dioxide is one of the only resources available on Mars. Knowing that biology is especially good at converting CO2 into useful products makes it a good fit for creating rocket fuel,” mentioned Nick Kruyer, first creator of the examine and a latest Ph.D. recipient from Georgia Tech’s School of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering (ChBE). The paper outlines the method, which begins by ferrying plastic supplies to Mars that may be assembled into photobioreactors occupying the dimensions of 4 soccer fields. Cyanobacteria would develop within the reactors by way of photosynthesis (which requires carbon dioxide). Enzymes in a separate reactor would break down the cyanobacteria into sugars, which could possibly be fed to the E. coli to provide the rocket propellant. The propellant can be separated from the E. coli fermentation broth utilizing superior separation strategies. The crew’s analysis finds that the bio-ISRU technique makes use of 32% much less energy (however weighs thrice extra) than the proposed chemically enabled technique of transport methane from Earth and producing oxygen by way of chemical catalysis. Because the gravity on Mars is just a one-third of what’s felt on Earth, the researchers have been capable of be artistic as they considered potential fuels. “You need a lot less energy for lift-off on Mars, which gave us the flexibility to consider different chemicals that aren’t designed for rocket launch on Earth,” mentioned Pamela Peralta-Yahya, a corresponding creator of the examine and an affiliate professor within the School of Chemistry & Biochemistry and ChBE who engineers microbes for the manufacturing of chemical compounds. “We started to consider ways to take advantage of the planet’s lower gravity and lack of oxygen to create solutions that aren’t relevant for Earth launches.” “2,3-butanediol has been around for a long time, but we never thought about using it as a propellant. After analysis and preliminary experimental study, we realized that it is actually a good candidate,” mentioned Wenting Sun, affiliate professor within the Daniel Guggenheim School of Aerospace Engineering, who works on fuels. The Georgia Tech crew spans campus. Chemists, chemical, mechanical, and aerospace engineers got here collectively to develop the concept and course of to create a viable Martian gasoline. In addition to Kruyer, Peralta-Yahya, and Sun, the group included Caroline Genzale, a combustion skilled and affiliate professor within the George W. Woodruff School of Mechanical Engineering, and Matthew Realff, professor and David Wang Sr. Fellow in ChBE, who’s an skilled in course of synthesis and design. The crew is now trying to carry out the organic and supplies optimization recognized to scale back the load of the bio-ISRU course of and make it lighter than the proposed chemical course of. For instance, enhancing the velocity at which cyanobacteria grows on Mars will cut back the dimensions of the photobioreactor, considerably decreasing the payload required to move the gear from Earth. “We also need to perform experiments to demonstrate that cyanobacteria can be grown in Martian conditions,” mentioned Realff, who works on algae-based course of evaluation. “We need to consider the difference in the solar spectrum on Mars both due to the distance from the Sun and lack of atmospheric filtering of the sunlight. High ultraviolet levels could damage the cyanobacteria.” The Georgia Tech crew emphasizes that acknowledging the variations between the 2 planets is pivotal to growing environment friendly applied sciences for the ISRU manufacturing of gasoline, meals, and chemical compounds on Mars. It’s why they’re addressing the organic and supplies challenges within the examine in an effort to contribute to purpose of future human presence past Earth. “The Peralta-Yahya lab excels at finding new and exciting applications for synthetic biology and biotechnology, tackling exciting problems in sustainability,” added Kruyer. “Application of biotechnology on Mars is a perfect way to make use of limited available resources with minimal starting materials.”

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