Researchers have found a new way to convert methane into rocket fuel on Mars — adding crucial flexibility to future astronaut missions to the Red Planet, according to a recent blog post on the University of California, Irvine's (UCI's) official website.
Scientists create new way to convert methane into rocket fuel on Mars
Elon Musk and other engineers at SpaceX theorized such a method while searching for ways to combine water from ice on Mars with carbon dioxide to procure enough carbon and hydrogen for methane production.
Once astronauts make it to Mars they might use this method to transform local Red Planet matter like carbon dioxide and ice into rocket fuel — primed and ready to launch humans on a return trip to Earth.
While only a "proof of concept" as of writing, the new method has succeeded in lab tests. "[L]ots of engineering and research is needed before this can be fully implemented," said University of California, Irvine, physicist Huolin Xin, in a statement. "But the results are very promising."
Cutting the two-step process down to one
To engineer the new method, the team turned to an existing two-step method proven to convert water into breathable oxygen on the International Space Station (ISS) — and worked to reduce it to one step. A single-atom zinc catalyst made it happen.
"The zinc is fundamentally a great catalyst," said Xin in the statement. "It has time, selectivity and portability — a big plus for space travel."
In cutting the two-step process down to one, the researchers created a more portable and compact method — stripped for transport and use on the Red Planet, said Xin.
New process must square away with future propulsion tech
In the new methodology, atomically dispersed zinc plays catalyst to the same reaction, forging methane from carbon dioxide. This reaction via specialized catalyst "efficiently converts CO2 into methane," added Xin.
Modern-day vehicles typically don't use rocket fuel based on methane, which means this new process needs to be compatible with propulsion technologies of the future.
SpaceX, Blue Origin already working on methane-based rocket fuel
Boeing and Lockheed typically use RP-1 kerosene and liquid hydrogen to launch their rockets — which is cost-effective and efficient — but there are pitfalls to this fuel source. For example, burning RP-1 kerosene fuel can leave substantial quantities of carbon residue that must be cleaned away before subsequent use, and on Mars, it won't always be easy to step out of the proverbial front door to remove the mess.
Some companies, however, are already endorsing the new method — and are committing to the methane-based rocket fuel. SpaceX's Raptor engines on Starship, Firefly Alpha, and Blue Origin's BE-4 have all set sights on methane-based rocket fuel, to name a few.
Correction: This article has been updated. The text previously stated burning liquid hydrogen fuel in rocket engines leaves a carbon residue that has to be cleaned away before subsequent use. This is incorrect. When RP-1 kerosene is burned in an engine, it can eventually deposit substantial quantities of carbon residue after burn, which cannot happen from liquid hydrogen alone (as the element, hydrogen, cannot itself contain another larger element, carbon). The article has been updated to reflect this. IE regrets this error.