SALT LAKE CITY (ABC4) – It’s part of the Perseverance rover mission to Mars, and it sounds like science fiction, but it’s not. Scientists from earth are ready to try manufacturing on an alien planet for the first time.
Utah’s OxEon Energy has helped make it very real.
The experiment is called MOXIE (Mars Oxygen In-Situ Resource Utilization experiment). It is part of the Perseverance Rover mission.
At the time of publishing this article, the Perseverance Rover is approaching Mars and is carrying the first interplanetary mini-factory, which will produce oxygen from Martian CO2.
Perseverance is not a small rover; it is about the size of a small car at 2300 lbs. The rover will search for ancient microbial life and test technologies to pave the way for humans to exist in the harsh environment of the planet.
The rover carries a mini-helicopter named Ingenuity, which will be the first earth aircraft to fly on another planet.
The entire mission is full of cutting edge technology and 19 cameras. One of those technologies is where a Utah company comes in.
Utah’s OxEon Energy manufactured the Solid Oxide Electrolysis Cells. It sounds complicated, but according to NASA, if you think about it, the devices work like a tree does here on earth.
The device breathes in Martian CO2 and breathes out oxygen, which is where OxEon Energy comes in.
Utah’s OxEon started in 2017 with three friends, a bit of a scientific dream team: Joseph Hartvigsen, a Chemical Engineer from BYU; Dr. S. Elango Elangovan, a Ph.D. from the University of Utah in Materials Science; and Lyman Frost, who received his Master of Science degree from Purdue.
Their goal was to make clean energy with cleantech. The three were looking for ways to get us off fossil fuels.
The underlying technology for the Mars mission sounds like it is straight out of Star Trek. It’s called Solid State Ionics. According to Joe Hartvigsen, “The tech uses ceramics a very thin, paper-thin cubic zirconia, that if you hold the edge, you can’t actually see through it.”
You can see how thin one layer of it is in the slideshow below.
Hartvigsen says, “We started out taking fuel and air and making electricity. Over the years, we completely turned that idea around to take electricity and make fuel and oxygen.”
The MOXIE experiment will take electricity and CO2 from the Mars atmosphere and create Oxygen. Hartvigsen adds, “We are just showing it can be done on Mars.”
The company is also working with NASA to make rocket propellants both on Mars and on the Moon.
Hartvigsen explains, “If you think about what people saw in the movie ‘The Martian,’ the Mars Ascent Vehicle (MAV), the idea was once it landed, the rocket would use oxygen and methane to refuel over the course of two years.”
Hartvigsen expressed an amazing night when his family was watching the Netflix show “Away,” when they showed the fueling up for the Mars Mission on the moon, taking advantage of the low gravity and the ice. Hartvigsen’s daughter asked, “Is that real?” he said, “I am writing a report right now on our project to do just that.”
He jokes that the device in “The Martian” is called the “Oxygenator,” and what they did is create it for real.
Dr. Elangovan says, “Obviously, there’s no oxygen on Mars. You need oxygen for astronauts breathing and oxygen and methane for rocket propellants. You can either carry oxygen and methane from the earth, or you can make oxygen and methane on Mars. Even though it is more challenging to make it like we are attempting to do, taking it from Earth would be a tremendous effort because each kilogram of Mars payload, when launched from earth, requires about 270 to one kilograms of launch mass.”
Why does manufacturing it at a specific time have to happen? The scientists said that it is because there is a specific time when Mars lines up with Earth to make an efficient trip back.
Hartvigsen adds, “That’s why they want to make it from resources where they are going.” NASA’s term for it is ISRU, or In-Situ Resource Utilization.
Just one of the small devices on the rover if converting CO2 to oxygen continuously can produce 70% of what a human needs to breathe daily.
OxEon Scientists say there would be enough oxygen leftover from the propellant manufacturing to support humans on the planet.
The experiment is one piece of the rover mission, but it is the piece that could be paving the Martian road where the first humans will leave footprints in the Martian dust.