We Can Now Make Water Into Rocket Fuel, Oxygen on Mars, Say Scientists

Scientists are working on ways to scale down a device to turn water into fuel and oxygen on Mars.
Brad Bergan

An intrepid team of scientists has developed a device capable of turning water into fuel and oxygen for forthcoming missions on Mars, according to a recent study published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.


Scientists can make water into rocket fuel on Mars

In 2008, NASA's Phoenix Mars Lander made contact with the Red Planet's soil. Gathered on the Martian surface, the elements strewed throughout the soil offer us a clue to how humans could one day discover a new life for ourselves there.

Not long after, scientists confirmed the lander's discovery — namely, the presence of water ice on the Red Planet, Inverse reports.

This revolutionized how scientists think about Mars, in addition to ideas about the history of water on the Red Planet. But it also raised a very personal question for humanity: Could we use Martian water to fuel future crewed missions?

The new study details a device capable of transforming this water into fuel and oxygen — two crucial ingredients for any human mission on Mars.  Professor Vijay Ramani of the McKelvey School of Engineering who was also lead author on the new study claims he hadn't considered the potential for Mars missions when designing the new device — which transforms brine water into oxygen and fuel.

"Our initial interest in this technology was not for Mars," said Ramani to Inverse. "But when we read the report on brines on Mars, we thought, 'Let's see if this would work.'"

Curiosity Mars Surface
NASA's Mars rover Curiosity looks back at a dune, and its tracks. Source: NASA / JPL-Caltech / MSSS

Brine solution on Mars might be turned into oxygen, fuel

The Phoenix Lander touched Martian soil for the first time on May 25, 2008 — as part of a larger mission to grasp the history of water on the Red Planet. The robot found water ice in a soil sample, which was dredged up from a two-inch (5-cm) deep trench.

The Phoenix Lander also discovered evidence of magnesium perchlorate in Mars' soil — a critical oxidizing agent that dissolves in water — in addition to high concentrations of salt.

Magnesium perchlorate can hold its liquid form on the Martian surface — where temperatures allow it — but this could also create liquid brine on the surface, and also in the subsurface of Mars.

Brine solutions could be transformed into oxygen and hydrogen fuel on the Red Planet, which would give us resources for future human missions there, according to the authors of the new study.

Electrolyzer device on Mars would create a 'natural stock'

The device will work like this: first, the water solution enters the device, which has two sides. The first side separates water molecules apart to create a hydroxyl ion — and then the second side splits this molecule yet again to create an oxygen output.

Of course, we can already do this on Earth — with a device called an electrolyzer, or an electrochemical device that changes water into oxygen and hydrogen.

However, to adapt this technological method for the Red Planet, the researchers need to create a modular device they can scale down for the long haul to Mars. Once it's there, it can operate continuously, sucking up the brine solution and producing oxygen and hydrogen for astronauts to use whenever they land.

The novel device also needs to operate well in the freezing temperatures of Mars' surface — which can plummet to -81°F (-62°C). "If you're able to build this device and transport it up to Mars, you would have a natural stock," said Ramani to Inverse.

One step closer to putting humans on Mars' surface

The researchers aim to work with legacy space agencies like NASA in planning and launching future missions to Mars. If successful, the device could be an essential tool for humans on the Red Planet, enabling them to live there — and have enough fuel to come back to Earth.

"We can work in conjunction with all the existing technologies," said Ramani. "It's part of a basket of technologies."

As SpaceX, NASA, and a collection of other government agencies and private companies collaborate to put humans back on the moon, it's wonderful to learn how one of the most ultimate goals of both SpaceX and NASA in our solar system — to put humans on Mars and build a sustainable presence — is starting to make headway as the fundamental elements required edge closer to our grasp, thanks to this device.


Editor's NoteAn earlier version of this article stated that an electrolyzer changes water into oxygen or hydrogen. This is misleading, since water, when broken down, will always yield both oxygen and hydrogen. The disjunction is now a conjunction, to correct this ambiguity.

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