NASA Awards Research Funding for In-Situ Resource Utilization on Mars

NASA’s InSight spacecraft flipped open the lens cover on its Instrument Context Camera (ICC) on Nov. 30, 2018, and captured this view of Mars. Located below the deck of the InSight lander, the ICC has a fisheye view, creating a curved horizon. Some clumps of dust are still visible on the camera’s lens. One of the spacecraft’s footpads can be seen in the lower right corner. The seismometer’s tether box is in the upper left corner. (Credits: NASA/JPL-Caltech)

Although NASA has the moon clearly in its sight, the space agency continues to fund technologies that will use in-situ resources to facilitate human missions to Mars.

NASA has selected OxEon Energy and Bob Zubrin’s Pioneer Astronautics for Small Business Innovation Research Phase II (SBIR) awards for technology that would extract carbon dioxide from the martian atmosphere to produce oxygen and fuel. The contracts are worth up to $750,000 over two years.

OxEon’s research and development (R&D) work involves the development of electrolysis stacks that “will generate oxygen and fuel on Mars using in-situ resource such as carbon dioxide from Martian atmosphere and subsurface water,” the company said in a proposal summary.

OxEon said the stacks could be used on Earth to produce hydrogen for transportation.

“The stacks will be used to produce hydrogen and oxygen by steam electrolysis….Co-electrolysis of CO2 and H2O to produce synthesis gas which can be either converted to synthetic methane or liquid hydrocarbon fuels. The primary target application is the storage of intermittent renewable energy,” the summary said.

Pioneer Astronautics’ project involves the development of a liquid sorption pump (LSP) for the conversion of carbon dioxide.

“In the LSP, a solvent, such as an alcohol, ketone, or acetate is cooled to temperatures below -100 C, where it becomes an effective solvent for Mars atmospheric CO2,” the proposal summary stated.

Zubrin’s company claims the LSP technology can be used to fight climate change by dramatically expanding U.S. oil production.

“The LSP could be used to separate CO2 from flue gas and other exhaust streams on Earth,” the proposal added. “Once separated the CO2 could be used to enable enhanced oil recovery (EOR). The USA has hundreds of thousands of dormant oil wells that could be revived by using CO2 to pressurize them and lower their viscosity. This will allow for a dramatic expansion of US oil production while combating climate change.”

The proposal summaries are below.

OxEon Energy, LLC
North Salt Lake, UT

Redox Tolerant Cathode for Solid Oxide Electrolysis Stacks
Subtitle: Mars Atmosphere ISRU for Mission Consumables

Principal Investigator
S Elango Elangovan

Estimated Technology Readiness Level (TRL) :
Begin: 3
End: 5

Technical Abstract

In Phase I, OxEon investigated several cathode compositions for redox tolerance. The modified nickel cermet based cathode compositions were subjected multiple oxidation reduction cycles to evaluate electrolysis performance in button cell configuration. Several of the cathode compositions showed capability of electrolysis operation after oxidation reduction cycle including exposure to oxidizing environment for as long as 48 hours. The performance dropped slightly after each cycle but the cells were still functional. Cells were subjected to 20 thermal cycles and one rapid heat up of 15 °C/min. The cell performance completely recovered after each cycle.

In Phase further optimization of the cathode composition and fabrication process is planned. After evaluation in button cells, stacks using the selected cathode composition will be assembled and tested. Tests include electrolysis of CO2, H2O separately and together. Stacks will be subjected to multiple redox cycles and thermal cycles including rapid heat up to evaluate their capability to continue to produce oxygen and fuel with minimal change in performance.

Potential NASA Applications

The intended target application is Mars ISRU. Specifically, the electrolysis stacks will generate oxygen and fuel on Mars using in-situ resource such as carbon dioxide from Martian atmosphere and subsurface water.

Potential Non-NASA Applications

The stacks will be used to produce hydrogen an oxygen by steam electrolysis. The intended application for the produced hydrogen is for transportation. Co-electrolysis of CO2 and H2O to produce synthesis gas which can be either converted to synthetic methane or liquid hydrocarbon fuels. The primary target application is the storage of intermittent renewable energy.

Duration: 24 months


Liquid Sorption Pump
Subtopic: Mars Atmosphere ISRU for Mission Consumables

Principal Investigator
Robert Zubrin

Estimated Technology Readiness Level (TRL) :
Begin: 4
End: 6

Technical Abstract

The Liquid Sorption Pump (LSP) is a new technology for acquiring CO2 from the Martian atmosphere for use in In Situ Resource Utilization (ISRU) systems. In the LSP, a solvent, such as an alcohol, ketone, or acetate is cooled to temperatures below -100 C, where it becomes an effective solvent for Mars atmospheric CO2.

After absorbing 5 percent or more by mole CO2, the solvent is pumped to another vessel where it is heated to 30 C, releasing the CO2 at pressures of more than 1 bar. The clean warm solvent is then sent back to the absorption vessel, exchanging heat with the cold absorption column effluent as it goes. After the clean solvent is cooled to near the design absorption temperature in this way, a mechanical refrigerator is used to achieve the final temperature reduction.

Advantages of the LSP are that it can operate continuously day or night without the need for mechanical vacuum roughing pumps, solid freezers, or large sorption beds, requires less power than other options, is readily scalable to high outputs, and that it stops all sulfur, dust, or non-condensable gases from reaching the ISRU reactor system.

In the proposed SBIR Phase 2, an operating protoflight LSP unit meeting the full-scale NASA CO2 acquisition requirement needed to support will be demonstrated and its performance assessed.

Potential NASA Applications

The primary initial application of the LSP is to provide a reliable, low cost, low mass technology to acquire CO2 on the surface of Mars out of the local atmosphere at low power. Such a system can be used to enable human exploration of Mars, as well as a Mars Sample Return mission. ]

The LSP is dramatically superior to current alternative methods of collecting Mars CO2 because its power requirement is much less. Compared to roughing pumps or solid sorption beds, the LSP can reduce CO2 acquistion power requirements by an order of magnitude.

Potential Non-NASA Applications

The LSP could be used to separate CO2 from flue gas and other exhaust streams on Earth. Once separated the CO2 could be used to enable enhanced oil recovery (EOR). The USA has hundreds of thousands of dormant oil wells that could be revived by using CO2 to pressurize them and lower their viscosity. This will allow for a dramatic expansion of US oil production while combating climate change.

  • TheBrett

    I suspect we’ll never be able to pull enough CO2 from the air by volume to seriously reduce climate change, but it’s good to see ISRU research funded for Mars applications. It’d be quite useful to be able to try out the methalox ISRU that Zubrin proposed for Mars Direct with a sample return mission (the amount of fuel and oxidizer needed would be small enough that it could probably be done with solar panels).

  • DP Huntsman

    I applaud the primary purpose of advancing off-planet ISRU. However, the secondary terrestrial ‘benefit’ cited – greatly expanding terrestrial oil production, when that needs to be greatly reduced – & calling it ‘combating climate change’ because it uses some CO2 is so disingenuous that if NASA cites it in any official documentation they are abrogating their duty to America and to Earth (and, yes, duty to both is included in NASA’s founding law, the Space Act). – Dave Huntsman

  • duheagle

    As one who has seen no convincing evidence that rising CO2 is actually a problem, the fact that a technology devised for Martian conditions may have marginal relevance here in “solving” a problem the existence of which has yet to be actually established is not something I’m inclined to turn handsprings over. But one would think that people who actually believe the alleged problem exists would be happy at this news. Mr. Huntsman’s attitude, though, will, I suspect, be nearly universal among his fellow climate alarmists. These people don’t want to actually solve their alleged problem and will vigorously oppose anyone who offers anything even remotely resembling a “solution.” That’s because, if the “problem” proves amenable to any sort of amelioration, it can’t continue to be used as the basis for their non-negotiable demands to be put in charge of the entire planet – and that is, in the end, the object of the whole exercise.

  • windbourne

    put this on back burner. Focus on the moon for a bit.