Life on Mars? Belgian researchers create crucial substances to survive on red planet

A research group at the University of Antwerp (UAntwerpen) discovered that Mars' atmosphere, which consists largely of CO2 and a small fraction of nitrogen, can be used to extract oxygen and the basis for artificial fertiliser.

Scientists of the UAntwerpen's chemical research group Plasmant discovered a method that would allow the atmosphere of Mars to be used to convert CO2 into oxygen and CO, and to turn nitrogen into a good basis for fertiliser, which could potentially be used for life support and transport on the red planet.

"Especially the speed and energy efficiency of the conversion have never been achieved before, and may have important implications for humanity," UAntwerpen professor Annemie Bogaerts said.

Plasma is the fourth aggregate state besides gas, solid and liquid, and is created when gas molecules split into charged particles by adding energy. It can be used, for example, to split CO2 and nitrogen and convert them into new molecules.

In a home-built plasma reactor, researchers generated plasma by introducing electrical energy into a reactor. "The conversion to new molecules is possible with an energy input of 1 kWh. You can compare this with the amount of energy used by a 1000 W microwave oven when it is on for an hour."

A plasma reactor splits gas molecules into reactive particles, after which these particles collide with each other again and form new products. Credit: UAntwerpen

"In practice, it comes down to creating small lightning bolts in our reactor. These lightning bolts first split the gas molecules, such as CO2 and nitrogen, into highly reactive particles, after which these particles collide with each other again and form new products," Bogaerts explained.

From the composition of Mars' atmosphere, it should be possible to extract oxygen and the basis for artificial fertiliser, among other things, even simultaneously.

The plasma method is several times faster and more energy efficient in converting CO2 into oxygen and fuel for future Mars exploration, and would also be very flexible, with an instantaneous start-up time, and therefore compatible with the fluctuating and non-continuous availability of solar electricity on Mars.

The researchers now want to further investigate whether coupling the plasma process to gas separation technology can provide pure gas streams of oxygen, CO and NOx, which are needed for life support and transport during future robotic or even human exploration of the red planet.


An image of “Santa Cruz,” a hill about 2.5 kilometers away from the rover on Mars © JPL / Caltech / NASA / AFP

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