Although modern space exploration discussion now revolves around more long-term journeys, such as future trips to Mars, we still don't have the technology to safely travel so far from our home planet.
Providing breathable air for passengers is one of the main challenges of a future trip to Mars. However, we haven't yet figured out how to do that effectively and efficiently. We can't easily ship oxygen tanks to and from places that are so far away, so we need an efficient way to recycle oxygen while there.
We currently have the technology to restore oxygen from carbon dioxide, but those systems are only about 50 percent efficient.
However, a new technology developed by scientists at the University of Delaware could put us one step closer to Mars and farther. This team created a silver electrocatalyst that converts carbon dioxide to carbon monoxide at a rate of 92 percent efficiency, which in turns releases oxygen.
And with many scientific processes, this one was accidental. This scientific team originally focused solely on converting carbon dioxide to carbon monoxide with what is basically a coat of silver painted on an electrode. However, now, it has a grant to focus on the byproduct of their new technology: oxygen.
"The catalyst performance is definitely among the best," says Feng Jiao, assistant professor in UD's Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering. "It's very selective, very efficient."
Now, Jiao is working with NASA's Glenn Research Center on using this technology for converting two molecules of carbon monoxide into one molecule of carbon dioxide and one molecule of carbon. Working together, their goal is to learn how to split carbon dioxide into one molecule of carbon and one molecule of oxygen at an efficiency of 100 percent.
If successful, the combined teams will receive a grant from NASA for $2 million to continue their research. Of course, they face other challenges, too: like making sure their system works in zero gravity, as well as make sure that it operates consistently over time.
"Right now, these kinds of lab-scale systems are not even sufficient to support one crew member in space travel," says Jiao. "In Phase II we want to develop a system which can support four people on board."
This team is one of four working on oxygen recycling technology. The winning team will see its technology used for in-flight testing, and eventually for actual travel to Mars.