In a first, researchers produce oxygen from magnets for space exploration

The new method could be the key to getting oxygen to Mars and beyond.
Loukia Papadopoulos
How can astronauts breathe in space.jpg
How can astronauts breathe in space?

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  • The study was conducted in a special drop tower facility that simulates microgravity conditions.
  • The research proved magnets were effective at producing oxygen.
  • The new method removes gas bubbles from liquids.

Producing enough oxygen for astronauts in space is a complicated affair that is only set to become more difficult as we travel to Mars and beyond.

Now, researchers have invented a new way to make oxygen for astronauts using magnets, according to a University of Warwick statement.

Getting oxygen in space using magnets

“On the International Space Station, oxygen is generated using an electrolytic cell that splits water into hydrogen and oxygen, but then you have to get those gasses out of the system.

A relatively recent analysis from a researcher at NASA Ames concluded that adapting the same architecture on a trip to Mars would have such significant mass and reliability penalties that it wouldn’t make any sense to use,” said lead author Álvaro Romero-Calvo, a recent Ph.D. graduate from the University of Colorado Boulder.

NASA currently uses centrifuges to get oxygen in space but those machines are large and require significant mass, power, and maintenance. The new research has conducted practical experiments showcasing magnets could achieve the same results much more practically.

These tests took place in the Center for Applied Space Technology and Microgravity (ZARM) in Germany at a special drop tower facility that simulates microgravity conditions.

“After years of analytical and computational research, being able to use this amazing drop tower in Germany provided concrete proof that this concept will function in the zero-g space environment,” said Professor Hanspeter Schaub of the University of Colorado Boulder.

In a first, researchers produce oxygen from magnets for space exploration
The new method removes gas bubbles from liquids.
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Gas bubbles repelled and attracted

The researchers engineered a procedure to detach gas bubbles from electrode surfaces in microgravity environments generated for 9.2s at the Bremen Drop Tower.

The study showcased for the first time that gas bubbles can be ‘attracted to’ and ‘repelled from’ a simple neodymium magnet in microgravity by immersing them in different types of an aqueous solution.

“Efficient phase separation in reduced gravitational environments is an obstacle for human space exploration and known since the first flights to space in the 1960s," said Dr. Katharina Brinkert of the University of Warwick Department of Chemistry Center for Applied Space Technology and Microgravity (ZARM).

"This phenomenon is a particular challenge for the life support system onboard spacecraft and the International Space Station (ISS) as oxygen for the crew is produced in water electrolyzer systems and requires separation from the electrode and liquid electrolyte,”

Brinkert concluded that the new method could “have tremendous consequences for the further development of phase separation systems, such as for long-term space missions.”

The research was first published in Nature’s affiliate npj Microgravity journal.

Study abstract:

The absence of strong buoyancy forces severely complicates the management of multiphase flows in microgravity. Different types of space systems, ranging from in-space propulsion to life support, are negatively impacted by this effect. Multiple approaches have been developed to achieve phase separation in microgravity, whereas they usually lack the robustness, efficiency, or stability that is desirable in most applications. Complementary to existing methods, the use of magnetic polarization has been recently proposed to passively induce phase separation in electrolytic cells and other two-phase flow devices. This article illustrates the dia- and paramagnetic phase separation mechanism on MilliQ water, an aqueous MnSO4 solution, lysogeny broth, and olive oil using air bubbles in a series of drop tower experiments. Expressions for the magnetic terminal bubble velocity are derived and validated and several wall–bubble and multi-bubble magnetic interactions are reported. Ultimately, the analysis demonstrates the feasibility of the dia- and paramagnetic phase separation approach, providing a key advancement for the development of future space systems.