Underground Brine Could Be a Source of Oxygen on Mars

If humans are ever going to visit Mars, they may well need to make some crucial resources while they are there, in order to survive long enough to explore and restock for the long return journey. Although the days of flowing surface water are long gone, the Red Planet is not entirely without the raw ingredients to make this work.


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The Mars 2020 mission that launched in July is carrying an experiment with exactly this goal in mind. MOXIE—the Mars Oxygen In-Situ Resource Utilization Experiment—is a box not much bigger than a toaster that produces oxygen from atmospheric CO 2~. While a much larger version would be required to make liquid-oxygen fuel for a rocket, MOXIE is sized to produce about the amount of oxygen an active person needs to breathe.

A new study led by Pralay Gayen at Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri, tests a device that could tap a different resource—perchlorate brine believed to exist in the Martian ground at some locations. The device can split the water in that brine, producing pure oxygen and hydrogen.

Perchlorate (ClO4) salts, we have discovered, are common on Mars. These salts have an affinity for water molecules and can collect water vapor over time, turning into a brine with a very low freezing temperature. There is evidence of sizable amounts of what could be this brine beneath the surface of Mars’ north polar region, and smaller amounts have been invoked as a possible explanation for the active streaks that sometimes appear on Martian slopes.

To test whether we could tap this resource, the researchers built an electrolysis device that they ran in Mars-like conditions. It uses a standard platinum-carbon cathode and a special lead-ruthenium-oxygen anode the researchers developed previously. They mixed up a plausible concentration of magnesium perchlorate brine and filled the headspace in that container with pure CO2 for a Mars-like atmosphere. The whole thing was kept at -36°C (-33°F). When powered up, brine flowed through the device, splitting into pure oxygen gas captured on the anode side and pure hydrogen gas on the cathode side.

The device worked quite well, producing about 25 times as much oxygen as its MOXIE counterpart can manage. MOXIE requires about 300 watts of power to run, and this device matches that oxygen output on about 12 watts. Plus, it also produces hydrogen that could be used in a fuel cell to generate electricity. And it would be smaller and lighter than MOXIE, the researchers say. Ultimately, all this just illustrates that MOXIE is working with a lower quality—but more widely accessible—resource in atmospheric CO2 instead of water.

A device like this would need to go through long-term stress testing, of course, to ensure that performance doesn’t degrade over time and it is generally robust. The membrane that separates

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Manned Mission To Mars Close To Possibility As New Tech Transforms Salty Water To Oxygen And Fuel


  • Unlike NASA’s MOXIE, this new technology can produce oxygen and hydrogen from salty water
  • The team behind this device wants to partner with NASA for its goal of bringing humans to Mars by 2023
  • Apart from Martian missions, the new technology is also useful on Earth

Access to water and fuel remains to be the biggest barrier to manned missions to Mars. The good news is that a new electrolyzer technology could trample that obstacle, making it possible for humans to survive the extreme conditions on the Red Planet. 

A team of engineers developed an electrolyzer device that can turn salty water into fuel and oxygen. Details of their development were published in the proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

This device can produce 25 times more oxygen than NASA’s Mars Oxygen In-Situ Resource Utilization Experiment (MOXIE), which is currently used by the Perseverance rover that’s currently on its way to Mars.

Unlike MOXIE, which produces oxygen from carbon dioxide, the new tech from the engineers of Washington University can produce both oxygen and hydrogen even from salty water. 

“Our novel brine electrolyzer incorporates a lead ruthenate pyrochlore anode developed by our team in conjunction with a platinum on carbon cathode,” Vijay Ramani, lead author and professor at the McKelvey School of Engineering at Washington University, said in a press release.  

“These carefully designed components coupled with the optimal use of traditional electrochemical engineering principles has yielded this high performance,” he explained further.

The team hopes it could partner with NASA for its goal of bringing humans to Mars by 2023. After all, it performed a simulation of the Martian atmosphere at -33 degrees Fahrenheit in testing its brine electrolysis device.  

Salty water is abundant on Mars, a fact that has already been established by various studies in the past. In September, three underground lakes were also discovered on the Red Planet. The waters were found to contain extremely salty components. 

Apart from Martian missions, the technology is also useful on Earth, according to the engineers. The standard electrolysis device on Earth requires pure water, whereas this new device can make oxygen and fuel even from salty water, making it more economical to use. 

The electrolysis system also has diverse applications. For instance, submarines for deep ocean exploration can rely on the system to produce enough supply of oxygen and fuel from salty water.

Mars seen from the Hubble space telescope Mars seen from the Hubble space telescope Photo: NASA / NASA

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New tech can get oxygen, fuel from Mars’s salty water

Credit: CC0 Public Domain

When it comes to water and Mars, there’s good news and not-so-good news. The good news: there’s water on Mars! The not-so-good news?

There’s water on Mars.

The Red Planet is very cold; water that isn’t frozen is almost certainly full of salt from the Martian soil, which lowers its freezing temperature.

You can’t drink salty water, and the usual method using electricity (electrolysis) to break it down into oxygen (to breathe) and hydrogen (for fuel) requires removing the salt; a cumbersome, costly endeavor in a harsh, dangerous environment.

If oxygen and hydrogen could be directly coerced out of briny water, however, that brine electrolysis process would be much less complicated—and less expensive.

Engineers at the McKelvey School of Engineering at Washington University in St. Louis have developed a system that does just that. Their research was published today in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).

The research team, led by Vijay Ramani, the Roma B. and Raymond H. Wittcoff Distinguished University Professor in the Department of Energy, Environmental & Chemical Engineering, didn’t simply validate its brine electrolysis system under typical terrestrial conditions; the system was examined in a simulated Martian atmosphere at -33 F (-36 C).

“Our Martian brine electrolyzer radically changes the logistical calculus of missions to Mars and beyond” said Ramani. “This technology is equally useful on Earth where it opens up the oceans as a viable oxygen and fuel source”

In the summer of 2008, NASA’s Phoenix Mars Lander “touched and tasted” Martian water, vapors from melted ice dug up by the lander. Since then, the European Space Agency’s Mars Express has discovered several underground ponds of water which remain in a liquid state thanks to the presence of magnesium perchlorate—salt.

In order to live—even temporarily—on Mars, not to mention to return to Earth, astronauts will need to manufacture some of the necessities, including water and fuel, on the Red Planet. NASA’s Perseverance rover is en-route to Mars now, carrying instruments that will use high-temperature electrolysis. However, the Mars Oxygen In-Situ Resource Utilization Experiment (MOXIE) will be producing oxygen only, from the carbon dioxide in the air.

The system developed in Ramani’s lab can produce 25 times more oxygen than MOXIE using the same amount of power. It also produces hydrogen, which could be used to fuel astronauts’ trip home.

“Our novel brine electrolyzer incorporates a lead ruthenate pyrochlore anode developed by our team in conjunction with a platinum on carbon cathode” Ramani said. “These carefully designed components coupled with the optimal use of traditional electrochemical engineering principles has yielded this high performance.”

The careful design and unique anode allow the system to function without the need for heating or purifying the water source.

“Paradoxically, the dissolved perchlorate in the water, so-called impurities, actually help in an environment like that of Mars,” said Shrihari Sankarasubramanian, a research scientist in Ramani’s group and joint first author of the paper.

“They prevent the water from freezing,” he said, “and

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Scientists reveal new clues into how Earth got its oxygen

Scientists reveal new clues into how Earth got its oxygen
Earth’s thin shell of oxygen atmosphere keeps us alive, though we still don’t know exactly how it formed. A new study from the University of Chicago reveals clues in the role that iron had to play. Credit: NASA

For much of Earth’s four and a half billion years, the planet was barren and inhospitable; it wasn’t until the world acquired its blanket of oxygen that multicellular life could really get going. But scientists are still trying to understand exactly how—and why—our planet got this beautifully oxygenated atmosphere.

“If you think about it, this is the most important change that our planet experienced in its lifetime, and we are still not sure exactly how this happened,” said Nicolas Dauphas, the Louis Block Professor of Geophysical Sciences at the University of Chicago. “Any progress you can make toward answering this question is really important.”

In a new study published Oct. 23 in Science, UChicago graduate student Andy Heard, Dauphas and their colleagues used a pioneering technique to uncover new information about the role of oceanic iron in the rise of Earth’s atmosphere. The findings reveal more about Earth’s history, and can even shed light on the search for habitable planets in other star systems.

Scientists have painstakingly recreated a timeline of the ancient Earth by analyzing very ancient rocks; the chemical makeup of such rocks changes according to the conditions they formed under.

“The interesting thing about it is that prior to the permanent Great Oxygenation Event that happened 2.4 billion years ago, you see evidence in the timeline for these tantalizing little bursts of oxygen, where it looks like Earth was trying to set the stage for this atmosphere,” said Heard, the first author on the paper. “But the existing methods weren’t precise enough to tease out the information we needed.”

It all comes down to a puzzle.

As bridge engineers and car owners know, if there’s water around, oxygen and iron will form rust. “In the early days, the oceans were full of iron, which could have gobbled up any free oxygen that was hanging around,” Heard said. Theoretically, the formation of rust should consume any excess oxygen, leaving none to form an atmosphere.

Heard and Dauphas wanted to test a way to explain how oxygen could have accumulated despite this apparent problem: they knew that some of the iron in the oceans was actually combining with sulfur coming out of volcanoes to form pyrite (better known as fool’s gold). That process actually releases oxygen into the atmosphere. The question was which of these processes “wins.”

To test this, Heard used state-of-the-art facilities in Dauphas’ Origins Lab to develop a rigorous new technique to measure tiny variations in iron isotopes in order to find out which route the iron was taking. Collaborating with world experts at the University of Edinburgh, he also had to flesh out a fuller understanding of how the iron-to-pyrite pathway works. (“In order to make sulfide and run these experiments, you need understanding colleagues, because

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Oxygen can do a favor to synthesize metal-organic frameworks

Oxygen can do a favor to synthesize metal-organic frameworks
Figure 1.The structure of the Cu3(TABTO)2-MOF (carbon, nitrogen, oxygen, hydrogen, and copper atoms are gray, blue, red, white, and purple, respectively). Credit: Institute for Basic Science

Metal-organic frameworks, or MOFs, are composed of metal ions periodically surrounded by organic bridging molecules, and these hybrid crystalline frameworks feature a cage-like hollow structure. This unique structure motif offers great potential for a range of applications in energy storage, chemical transformations, optoelectronics, chemiresistive sensing, and (photo)electrocatalysis, among others. Debuted in the early 2000s, MOFs are a fascinating nanomaterial. Though numerous applications exploit MOFs, little has been known as to how oxygen may work in the synthesis of MOFs.

Led by Director Rodney S. Ruoff and senior chemist Dr. Yi Jiang, chemists from the Center for Multidimensional Carbon Materials (CMCM) within the Institute for Basic Science (IBS) located at Ulsan National Institute of Science and Technology (UNIST) in collaboration with their colleagues at UNIST and Sungkyunkwan University (SKKU) have identified how oxygen affects the synthesis of a novel MOF; copper 1,3,5-triamino-2,4,6-benznetriol metal-organic framework [Cu3(TABTO)2-MOF]. Their findings were published in a recent article in the Journal of the American Chemical Society.

“Since organic redox-active ligands are usually sensitive to oxygen, the presence of oxygen is not favored in many organic reactions. However, oxygen can be helpful for the synthesis of some redox-active ligand-based MOFs, but many chemists did not realize this,” notes Dr. Yi Jiang, the first author of the study. The researchers synthesized a 2-D conjugated MX2Y2-type (M = metal, X, Y = N, S, O, and X ≠ Y) Cu3(TABTO)2-MOF based on a redox-active ligand (1,3,5-triamino-2,4,6-benzenetriol). The role of oxygen in the synthesis of this MOF was identified by comparing the results from experiments in air and inert gas (argon): Pure Cu3(TABTO)2-MOF was produced in the presence of oxygen, but the Cu3(TABTO)2-MOF together with copper metal was formed if oxygen was absent. Dr. Jiang adds, “Our study suggests that oxygen prevents these ligands from reducing the Cu (I and II) ions to Cu metal, facilitating the synthesis of a pure MOF.”

They also revealed that Cu3(TABTO)2-MOF became electrically conductive after being chemically oxidized by iodine because of the formation of CuI and carriers. It is originally an insulator with almost no electrical conductivity. The iodine-doping generates 0.78 siemens per centimeter of electrical conductivity in the Cu3(TABTO)2-MOF pellet that was synthesized in air. Further experiments and analysis found the metallic characteristics of the materials.

Modeling the structure via detailed density functional theory (DFT) calculations, the researchers also experimentally studied the structure of this 2-D MOF through X-ray diffraction, diffuse reflectance UV-vis, X-ray photoelectron, electron paramagnetic resonance, and Raman spectroscopies.

“Our work contributed to a fundamental understanding of the role of oxygen in the synthesis of redox-active ligands-based MOFs, and should inspire the community to pay more attention to the role oxygen can play in synthesis of redox-active ligands-based MOFs,”

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Space Station Crew Safe After Oxygen Supply System Failure

The International Space Station

The International Space Station
Image: NASA

Crew members aboard the International Space Station are dealing with a failed oxygen supply generator located within a Russian module. Thankfully, the astronauts and cosmonauts are not in danger, but this is now the second recent glitch involving a Russian component, which might be cause for concern.

The malfunctioning oxygen supply system is located within the Russian Zvezda module and it conked out late yesterday, reports AFP. Sounds scary, but a second oxygen supply system located on the U.S. side is functioning normally and providing breathable air for the ISS crew. Moreover, extra oxygen supplies are stored on the ISS as an added precaution.

The system failed on the same day that NASA astronaut Kate Rubins and cosmonauts Sergey Ryzhikov and Sergey Kud-Sverchkov arrived at the orbiting outpost, joining crewmembers Chris Cassidy, Anatoly Ivanishin, and Ivan Vagner. It’s not clear if the oxygen failure had anything to do with their arrival, though that seems unlikely.

It’s also not clear if the Russian oxygen generation system failure has anything to do with an unresolved air leak. Latest word is that Roscosmos has finally traced the source of the leak, which is somewhere in the Zvezda module, and mission engineers are currently preparing instructions for repairs, as AFP reports. The air leak has been active since last year and is not deemed a risk to the crew.

Regarding the failed oxygen generation system, a Roscosmos spokesperson told AFP that “nothing” currently threatens the crew, and repairs to the system should happen later today.

State-owned Russian news agency RIA Novosti is reporting that the failed system is an Electron-VM OGS. RIA Novosti quoted veteran Russian cosmonaut Gennady Padalka, who said: “All modules of the Russian segment are exhausted,” noting that they rely on expired equipment in need of replacement.

Illustration for article titled Space Station Crew Safe After Oxygen Supply System Failure

The U.S. side is equipped with an oxygen generation system capable of supporting the current crew of six. It’s part of an integrated network, called the Environmental Control and Life Support System (ECLSS), which also includes water recovery and air revitalization. The system “produces oxygen for breathing air, as well as replaces oxygen lost as a result of experiment use, airlock depressurization, module leakage, and carbon dioxide venting,” according to a NASA fact sheet. Oxygen is generated by using electrolysis to split oxygen from hydrogen. NASA’s ECLSS has been operating on the ISS since 2008.

This is a developing story, and we’ll update this post as we learn more.

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