Silver electrocatalysts may help enable long-term space travel

Silver electrocatalysts may help enable long-term space travel
UD's Feng Jiao is part of a team working on a project to develop a system to provide oxygen for long-duration space flights. Credit: Evan Krape

Despite continuous advances, major obstacles remain before manned missions can set off for destinations like Mars. A primary concern is how people will breathe.

Long-duration space flights would travel far away from Earth and take years. Oxygen tanks can't be shuttled out to resupply the astronauts, so the air must be recycled. Yet state-of-the-art systems are only about 50 percent efficient at recovering used from

NASA is funding several projects attempting to solve this problem, one of which involves a University of Delaware engineer and came about through a serendipitous connection.

A scientist at NASA's Glenn Research Center contacted Feng Jiao, assistant professor in UD's Department of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering, after he and his colleagues published a paper in Nature Communications in January 2014. 

Jiao's team had created a silver electrocatalyst that, due to its carefully designed nanoscale structure, could convert dioxide to with 92 percent efficiency—freeing oxygen in the process. 

The catalyst itself is a silver coating on the surface of an electrode that increases the efficiency of the CO2-CO reaction by assisting with the transfer of electrons. 

"The catalyst performance is definitely among the best," Jiao says. "It's very selective, very efficient." 

Carbon monoxide (CO) has many industrial applications, and the initial idea was to convert abundant CO2 to useful CO, with the oxygen as an incidental byproduct. 

Now that byproduct is what they're focused on. 

Jiao and the NASA scientist, Ken Burke, are co-principal investigators on a $750,000 NASA-funded grant, one of four teams trying to create the most efficient oxygen recycling system possible. 

Burke's lab was working on a technology to convert two molecules of carbon monoxide to one molecule of carbon dioxide and one molecule of carbon. If they can combine their systems, says Jiao, "then eventually we can completely split CO2 to one molecule of carbon and one molecule of oxygen." 

With such a system, "in principle, we can recover 100 percent of the oxygen from CO2. NASA is very interested in developing this kind of technology for ," Jiao says.

The first challenge for the UD team is to convert the University laboratory's electrocatalysis device. The system currently processes its ingredients in batches, but for this purpose it must run continuously. 

They then have to integrate their part of the work with what Burke's lab in Ohio has created. 

If their system is one of the two chosen by NASA for further exploration, they will be granted $2 million to adapt the system for large-scale use. 

"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." 

They will also ensure that the system is compatible with a zero-gravity environment and stable enough for operation over a period of months. Eventually, the winning system will go up for in-flight testing.

This is the first time Jiao has worked with NASA, an exciting prospect for him. "My students also got very excited," he says. "They're actually very eager to start this project and see how far we can push this technology."


Explore further

Researchers report on new catalyst to convert greenhouse gases into chemicals

More information: "A selective and efficient electrocatalyst for carbon dioxide reduction." Nature Communications 5, Article number: 3242 DOI: 10.1038/ncomms4242
Journal information: Nature Communications

Citation: Silver electrocatalysts may help enable long-term space travel (2015, February 20) retrieved 16 June 2019 from https://phys.org/news/2015-02-silver-electrocatalysts-enable-long-term-space.html
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Feb 20, 2015
If the process liberates only one of the Oxygen atoms, the efficiency can not be higher then 50%. So I guess that the 92% efficiency quoted is only for liberating the one atom. So the actual efficiency is 46%. So how this is better then "state-of-the-art systems are only about 50 percent efficient"?

Feb 20, 2015
Must be some power input required since the oxidation state of CO is lower than CO2.

Feb 20, 2015
Herzel Laor, I think they are talking about combining two separate processes. The one being researched by Dr. Feng Jiao that converts 2CO2 -> 2CO + O2 and another being worked on by Dr. Burke that converts 2CO -> CO2 + C so that the end product of the conversion is just C and O2. If they are successful I think the efficiency should be well over 50%. The only question is how much energy must they input to get those reactions to happen and if that energy is realiztically available in a manned space ship.

Feb 20, 2015
I thought one of the main problem for a breathable atmosphere in a Mars habitat was: Where do we get the 80% nitrogen filler (and how do we replenish any nitrogen losses if we take nitrogen tanks there)?

Feb 20, 2015
Any energy needed can be supplied in space by solar PV for inner system travel and by nuclear for deep system travel. For interstellar use we would want to use fusion which can b e refueled by bussard collectors to collect the free h2 in deep space. Said Bussard collectors can be 'virtualized and become part of a m2p2 type of propulsion system utilizing the solar wind up to maybe 2LY out to the outer Oort Cloud.

Feb 20, 2015
Never mind the fantasy of being one of the crew of the first manned mission to Mars with the purpose of colonization using lander modules, as they are currently planning to do. The reality will be somewhat different.

They will suffer from radiation exposure; they will run out of food and all attempts to grow more will fail; they will begin to die off in their second year and in the end eat their dead. That will be the end of it, a failed effort.

Colonization of an environmentally hostile planet will need to begin with hard-core industrial preparations. They will need to seek out deep underground caverns for protection from radiation exposure and build massive power generation facilities to prepare oxygen from ozone and CO2 to provide an atmosphere as close to Earth's as possible in those caverns so that plants will grow under artificial lighting. And that's just the beginning.

Feb 20, 2015
For a colony to survive on Mars, colonizers will need to be underground. They will need to farm livestock, because they provide concentrated nutrients and protein, and methane. They will need to build large-scale industry to support space-travel ventures, because why else do you want to be on Mars? Is there not a practical reason for going there? It is not a vacation resort, by any stretch of the imagination.

The more I think about it, the more it seems like a silly idea to go there in person, unless there is an agenda, like preparing for a mass exodus from the doomed planet that is Earth, or some other equally imaginative purpose.

Feb 20, 2015
But, carbon is refactory. How will the carbon be separated from the reactions. Is it in solution? Is it plated out? The energy requirements have been mentioned by another commenter. Also, independent chemical processes must be connected into a mass and energy balance.

Feb 21, 2015
But, carbon is refactory.
NoTennisNow, please cure my ignorance on this topic and expand this a bit, if you would. How does carbon being refractory affect this process?

its
Feb 21, 2015
It seems like there are a few cart before horse posts here.
The article isn't even about what to do on Mars, they are talking about what to do just to even get to somewhere like Mars before they run out of breathable air.

Feb 21, 2015
I understood that removal of CO2 is a problem (not generating O2 because that can be done relatively easily). So in that aspect this technique is a big improvement.

Feb 21, 2015
We are carbon based life forms. If we can not eat pure carbon (not withstanding some steaks I have cooked). Carbon needs to be recycled back into our food supply.

Feb 21, 2015
For a colony to survive on Mars, colonizers will need to be underground. They will need to farm livestock, because they provide concentrated nutrients and protein, and methane. They will need to build large-scale industry to support space-travel ventures, because why else do you want to be on Mars? Is there not a practical reason for going there? It is not a vacation resort, by any stretch of the imagination.

The more I think about it, the more it seems like a silly idea to go there in person, unless there is an agenda, like preparing for a mass exodus from the doomed planet that is Earth, or some other equally imaginative purpose.
Livestock... Ahaahaaahaaaa

Feb 21, 2015
For a colony to survive on Mars, colonizers will need to be underground. They will need to farm livestock, because they provide concentrated nutrients and protein, and methane. They will need to build large-scale industry to support space-travel ventures, because why else do you want to be on Mars? Is there not a practical reason for going there? It is not a vacation resort, by any stretch of the imagination.

The more I think about it, the more it seems like a silly idea to go there in person, unless there is an agenda, like preparing for a mass exodus from the doomed planet that is Earth, or some other equally imaginative purpose.
The main reason to go is because right now humans have all their eggs in one basket. Hey - eggs, chickens... Livestock. I get it now.

Feb 21, 2015
That's not the only reason, going to Mars will increase the level of innovation with which we might be able to enhance (and possibly save) the earth environment.

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