Interplanetary First! Utah company’s device extracts oxygen on Mars

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SALT LAKE CITY (ABC4) – “To boldly go, where no one has gone before.” Millions of people have heard those words for generations, now NASA’s M.O.X.I.E. experiment on Mars has made the famous words even more real.

For the first time in human history, oxygen has been extracted on another planet.

Utah’s OxEon Energy created the device that makes the process work; a mini-factory that converts carbon dioxide on Mars into oxygen. They call it Soxe.

Photo of Oxeon’s soxe stack inside of M.O.X.I.E.

“An unmitigated and picture-perfect success” is how OxyEon’s Joseph Hartvigsen, VP of engineering, describes the latest Perseverance first on Mars.

The Utah scientist quickly pointed out, the data first came back from Mars as columns of numbers. There were no actual photos. He says, “Two dozen engineers and scientists spread over two continents hunched and squinted over their keyboards to interpret the nuances in the graphs and tables of numbers.”

Hartvigsen adds, “For me, it was a huge sense of relief that we didn’t break it the first time out. It also brings a great sense of satisfaction. We actually did what we set out to do when we ran the first dry CO2 electrolysis tests in our lab fall of 2013. This year marks 30-years that Elango and I have been working together on this technology. He started about four years earlier, so 34 years for Elango.”

OxEon’s VP of development, Elango Elangovan, says, “It was an exciting moment that all the hard work by the team paid off. It is still hard to fathom that the stack worked exactly as it did on earth after traveling for seven months in space and nearly 300 million miles.”

Science fiction now becomes science fact. The planned use for the devices is to refuel spaceships and provide breathable oxygen for humans stationed on Mars, paving the way for humans to visit and return from the planet.

MOXIE Being Installed in Perseverance: Technicians at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory lower the Mars Oxygen In-Situ Resource Utilization Experiment (MOXIE) instrument into the belly of the Perseverance rover. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Once the scientists realized the experiment had been successful, Champagne and other libations were raised in a toast, celebrating the culmination of seven years of “relentless, diligent work built on decades of research.”

According to NASA, “NASA’s newest six-wheeled robot on the Martian surface includes converting some of the Red Planet’s thin, carbon dioxide-rich atmosphere into oxygen. A toaster-size, experimental instrument aboard Perseverance called the Mars Oxygen In-Situ Resource Utilization Experiment (MOXIE) accomplished the task. The test took place April 20, the 60th Martian day, or sol, since the mission landed Feb. 18.”

“This is a critical first step at converting carbon dioxide to oxygen on Mars,” says Jim Reuter, associate administrator STMD. “MOXIE has more work to do, but the results from this technology demonstration are full of promise as we move toward our goal of one-day seeing humans on Mars. Oxygen isn’t just the stuff we breathe. Rocket propellant depends on oxygen, and future explorers will depend on producing propellant on Mars to make the trip home.”

Members of the team in Utah could not be happier. But in their zeal remembered they are scientists and put out this official statement:

“The team at OxEon Energy, led by Joseph Hartvigsen and Elango Elangovan, designed, developed, and built the solid oxide electrolysis stack at the core of the MOXIE system. The stack development was a major part of the NASA-funded MOXIE Program awarded to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and managed by NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory. This exciting effort called upon the OxEon team’s 30+ years of experience in Solid Oxide Fuel Cell/Electrolysis Technologies, propelling the bench-scale technology through flight qualification in a three-year development program. The MOXIE system successfully met its first round of objectives to demonstrate propellant and life support oxygen production required for future manned missions to Mars. OxEon’s development efforts focused heavily on providing a robust system capable of maintaining the required oxygen purity and production targets, surviving the shock, vibrational, compression, and thermal environment, while meeting the rover’s power, mass, and volume constraints. The demonstration system is designed to produce up to 10 grams of oxygen per hour of operation. The system required to support a manned mission needs to be about 200 times larger.”

After a two-hour warmup period, MOXIE began producing oxygen at a rate of 6 grams per hour. The was reduced two times during the run (labeled as “current sweeps”) in order to assess the status of the instrument. After an hour of operation the total oxygen produced was about 5.4 grams, enough to keep an astronaut healthy for about 10 minutes of normal activity.
Credit: MIT Haystack Observatory

ABC4 News has been following the mission for several months now and asked the two scientists from OxyEon Energy if they ever dreamed of anything like this.

Elangovan says, “Like any kid who grew up during the Apollo days, I listened to the live commentary of Apollo 11 landing on the radio (no TV back then at my house) and read a book on the challenges of bringing back the astronauts from Apollo 13. I never thought I would be part of something like this. We made oxygen and also history.”

Hartvigsen also seems surprised, “When I graduated with a Chemical Engineering degree nearly 40 years ago (split between U of U and BYU) and wondered where I’d spend my career I had a sense that my contributions would be in the fields of defense, space and sustainable energy and that’s how it has gone. I grew up watching the Mercury, Gemini, and Apollo missions, dreaming about building rockets, and airplanes, so it wasn’t a surprise to find myself working at Hercules in Magna and then Boeing in Seattle in the 1980s. I never expected to develop the technology to produce rocket propellant on Mars or the moon.”

What’s next for the Interplanetary company?

Hartvigsen explains, “Elango and I are leading projects for moving the technology to the scale required to support human exploration. One NASA project is developing lunar propellant production using water ice in the permanently shadowed regions (PSRs) of craters near the lunar poles. This is the concept in the first episode of the Netflix series Away. We have another NASA project to develop the system to use Mars atmosphere CO2 like MOXIE, combined with subsurface water to make both O2 and CH4 (oxygen and methane) rocket propellant for the Mars Ascent Vehicle (MAV), as we’ve seen with Matt Damon in The Martian. It’s fascinating work, and we team with the brilliant and hardworking folks at NASA, JPL, MIT, and other universities.”

“Invariably, when NASA and their contractors report a great achievement, there are those who say it is a waste of money and that the money would be better spent on earth. With 100% certainty, I can say that every dollar is spent on earth, and the payback is huge. While this work is helping us get our business started here in Utah, the end goal of the technology is not just sustainable living in space but sustainable living on earth. The same technology is being used to show that we can create jet and diesel fuel from bio-CO2 and renewable electric energy. We have also shown it is possible to eliminate the use of fossil fuels while still flying airliners and driving trucks with jet and diesel fuel. It will take a large effort to make the change, but it can be done. That is something I would never have considered as a young, newly-graduated engineer. We can un-burn fuel, take CO2 and H2O, and make synthetic sustainable petroleum using wind, solar, hydro, and nuclear power. I could not have imagined that any more than I could have imagined making rocket propellant on the moon and Mars.”

All of us here at ABC4 News, congratulate Utah’s OxEon Energy on their historic interplanetary first.

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