Breakthrough in energy harvesting could power life on Mars

March 5, 2015
Leidenfrost Engine

Martian colonists could use an innovative new technique to harvest energy from carbon dioxide thanks to research pioneered at Northumbria University, Newcastle. 

The technique, which has been proven for the first time by researchers at Northumbria, has been published in the prestigious journal Nature Communications.

The research proposes a new kind of engine for producing energy based on the Leidenfrost effect – a phenomenon which happens when a liquid comes into near contact with a surface much hotter than its boiling point. This effect is commonly seen in the way water appears to skitter across the surface of a hot pan, but it also applies to solid carbon dioxide, commonly known as dry ice. Blocks of dry ice are able to levitate above hot surfaces protected by a barrier of evaporated gas vapour. Northumbria's research proposes using the vapour created by this effect to power an engine. This is the first time the Leidenfrost effect has been adapted as a way of harvesting energy. 

The technique has exciting implications for working in extreme and alien environments, such as , where it could be used to make long-term exploration and colonisation sustainable by using naturally occurring solid as a resource rather than a waste product. If this could be realised, then future missions to Mars, such as those in the news recently, may not need to be 'one-way' after all.

Dry ice may not be abundant on Earth, but increasing evidence from NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) suggests it may be a naturally occurring resource on Mars as suggested by the seasonal appearance of gullies on the surface of the red planet. If utilised in a Leidenfrost-based engine dry-ice deposits could provide the means to create future power stations on the surface of Mars.

Mars manned mission

One of the co-authors of Northumbria's research, Dr Rodrigo Ledesma-Aguilar, said: "Carbon dioxide plays a similar role on Mars as water does on Earth. It is a widely available resource which undergoes cyclic phase changes under the natural Martian temperature variations.

"Perhaps future power stations on Mars will exploit such a resource to harvest energy as blocks evaporate, or to channel the chemical energy extracted from other carbon-based sources, such as methane gas.

"One thing is certain; our future on other planets depends on our ability to adapt our knowledge to the constraints imposed by strange worlds, and to devise creative ways to exploit natural resources that do not naturally occur here on Earth."

The team at Northumbria believe one of humanity's biggest challenges this century will be finding new ways to harvest energy, especially in extreme environments. It was this challenge which led them to develop their proposed Leidenfrost Engine.

Dr Gary Wells, co-author of the paper, explains the unique properties of an engine based on this phenomenon.  

He said: "The working principle of a Leidenfrost-based engine is quite distinct from steam-based heat engines; the high-pressure vapour layer creates freely rotating rotors whose energy is converted into power without the need of a bearing, thus conferring the new engine with low-friction properties."

As well as potentially making long-term space exploration and colonisation more sustainable, the unique, low-friction nature of this engine could have other exciting applications, according to Executive Dean for Engineering and Environment, Professor Glen McHale.

Professor McHale, who also worked on the new research with Dr Wells and Dr Ledesma-Aguilar, said: "This is the starting point of an exciting avenue of research in smart materials engineering. In the future, Leidenfrost-based devices could find applications in wide ranging fields, spanning from frictionless transport to outer space exploration."

Explore further: Are gas-formed gullies the norm on Mars?

More information: Gary G. Wells, Rodrigo Ledesma-Aguilar, Glen McHale & Khellil Sefiane, "A sublimation heat engine," Nature Communications 6,Article number:6390 DOI: 10.1038/ncomms7390

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18 comments

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prem_janardhan
3 / 5 (2) Mar 05, 2015
Wonder if there's enough energy produced by this.
LENR4you
1.7 / 5 (11) Mar 05, 2015
Why not LENR?
Sonhouse
3 / 5 (2) Mar 05, 2015
How is this an energy source? You have to have a plate endowed with enough heat energy to make solid CO2 vaporize, granted it might not take much heat but still, suppose you stop heating the plate, what next? There goes your energy. I suppose you could drive heat pipes underground on Mars to transfer heat from below.

If you could do that on a large enough scale you might increase the atmospheric pressure and get some heat from the sun to hang around and heat the place up a bit.

I guess you wouldn't run out of dry ice any time soon.
roycehellion
3.7 / 5 (3) Mar 05, 2015
Why go through this much effort? If you want to harness the power of an expanding gas, a piston, or turbine has proven extremely effective and the tech has been around long enough to make it serviceable, and durable, and cheap... ?
foolspoo
3 / 5 (2) Mar 05, 2015
" innovative new"

where's jerry s!
teslaberry
3.7 / 5 (3) Mar 05, 2015
the power source is obviously the nuclear reactors that ancient alien civilization left on the moon.

seriously, this 'idea' was basically the core technology in the plot of 'total recall'.

only, they didn't harness the expanding c02 with a turbine to make electricity. they just let it create atmosphere.
thermodynamics
4.3 / 5 (11) Mar 05, 2015
Why not LENR?


Because it doe not exist.

Can you give me a single of an operating LNER facility?

Then give me your conspiracy list of those who are suppressing the LNER knowledge (knowing it could be the most lucrative endeavor in human history).
24volts
3.7 / 5 (3) Mar 05, 2015
"He said: "The working principle of a Leidenfrost-based engine is quite distinct from steam-based heat engines; the high-pressure vapour layer creates freely rotating rotors whose energy is converted into power without the need of a bearing, thus conferring the new engine with low-friction properties."

Just about as clear as mud. I can't think of any engine design that operates without some form of bearing in it. Something has to constrain the movement to create an output. magnetic bearings maybe?
MR166
3 / 5 (2) Mar 06, 2015
This whole article seems a little early. April Fools day is still almost 4 weeks away.
thermodynamics
4 / 5 (4) Mar 06, 2015
"He said: "The working principle of a Leidenfrost-based engine is quite distinct from steam-based heat engines; the high-pressure vapour layer creates freely rotating rotors whose energy is converted into power without the need of a bearing, thus conferring the new engine with low-friction properties."

Just about as clear as mud. I can't think of any engine design that operates without some form of bearing in it. Something has to constrain the movement to create an output. magnetic bearings maybe?


As I read in the abstract, they can do this with blocks of dry ice and heat the plate with sunlight (even at mars), The result is that they can have a machine producing electricity with minimal construction. I suspect the efficiency will be low because of the temperature of the source and sink, but the beauty lies in the fact that you should be able to build one in a few weeks given minor shop tools. That would let you bootstrap electricity on Mars.
MR166
5 / 5 (1) Mar 06, 2015
Thermo you are too bright to be trying to defend BS like this. I assume the frozen CO2 is at the poles and the settlements , if they ever happen, will be in more temperate zones. Good luck transporting the few watts generated at the poles to the settlement. Nuclear or solar looks about the only way to go here.

But then again, I suppose that a power source that is not really feasible is suitable for a project that is not really feasible either.
Dethe
1.8 / 5 (5) Mar 06, 2015
To call it breakthrough is IMO premature. You may want to check the videos (1, 2, 3) in the supplementary section of original article for to realize, what this guy is actually fabling about. IMO the colonization of planets will be fully driven with cold fusion and similar high energy density technologies - not with some archaic nonsenses, which require more energy for raw source materials mining and treatment than the energy actually produced.
Captain Stumpy
3.4 / 5 (5) Mar 07, 2015
IMO the colonization of planets will be fully driven with cold fusion and similar high energy density technologies - not with some archaic nonsenses
@ZEPHIR/dethe
you mean archaic nonsenses like daw/aw?
LMFAO

BUT SERIOUSLY
the point is NOT that this may be a breakthrough nor that it is going to supplant modern energy production

it is that it is EAST to make, will likely work well enough to produce energy to get other things going

think of it like historical blacksmiths and a heavy production load: eventually the thought process lead to the industrial revolution

Bongstar420
not rated yet Mar 07, 2015
I'd use the dry ice as feed stock for something...like growing plants. Electricity can come from LFTR
Rute
not rated yet Mar 08, 2015
Wouldn't it be easier to just use solar power and plutonium based RTG (radioisotope thermoelectric generator) as a secondary power source? If fabbing technology keeps developing as fast as it has done thus far, manufacturing the solar panels on Mars shouldn't be difficult by 2030.
Lex Talonis
not rated yet Mar 09, 2015
How is this an energy source? You have to have a plate endowed with enough heat energy to make solid CO2 vaporize, granted it might not take much heat but still, suppose you stop heating the plate, what next? There goes your energy. I suppose you could drive heat pipes underground on Mars to transfer heat from below.
.


The reason why this is SOOOOOO good in DEEP SPACE is because it's REALLY fucking cold, and depending on the pressurisation of the system, your looking at around -50*C to -80*C for it return it to solid, and the temperature of space is wayyyyyyyy below that.

Add in a solar concentrator for a heat source and you have a very good mechanical way of generating electrical power.

Of course in deep space where the sunlight gets too weak or the solar concentrators are getting too big, a nuclear reactor would be good.

Essentially frictionless moving parts, and an endless heat supply and an endless heat sink...

Simple.
TopCat22
1 / 5 (2) Mar 09, 2015
No. Humans should not go to Mars. We've wasted enough resources and time going there. There's nothing on Mars worth going for. Many much better places in the solar system to colonize and study with many more interesting things to see and do.
roedy_green
not rated yet Mar 19, 2015
I still don't understand how you extract energy from something floating on a cushion of CO2.

Does it just vibrate radomly?

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