Tuesday, June 18

If We Master Synthetic Photosynthesis, We Can Thrive in Space 2023

By 2030, various space organizations will send astronauts to the Moon for the first time since the Apollo Program. The Lunar Gateway, Artemis Base Camp, Moon Village, and ILRS will be permanent structures. The first crewed Mars flights and settlements are scheduled in the next decade. Commercial enterprises desire LEO homes for asteroid mining and space tourism.

Space Age 2.0’s biggest difficulty is keeping astronauts healthy. Providing personnel with breathing air through life support devices is the most difficult. A team led by Katharina Brinkert of the University of Warwick explained how artificial photosynthesis may create a new life support system that is smaller, lighter, simpler, and cheaper to ship to space.

Dr. Brinkert is an assistant professor in catalysis at the University of Warwick (UoW), UK, and a researcher at the Center for Applied Space Technology and Microgravity (ZARM) at the University of Bremen, Germany.

She was accompanied by Byron Ross, a Ph.D. student in Dr. Brinkert’s research group (who lead the work) in UoW’s Department of Chemistry, and Sophia Haussener, an associate professor at EPFL’s Institute of Mechanical Engineering. Nature Communications published their newest study on June 6.

Earth’s atmosphere and environment differed 4 billion years ago.

The planet had active volcanoes with a carbon dioxide (CO2), sulfur dioxide, and other volcanic gas atmosphere during the Archean Eon. The first lifeforms were single-celled microorganisms that photosynthesised using retinol or chlorophyll. These lifeforms slowly transformed water, sunshine, and CO2 into glucose and oxygen gas.

A secondary mechanism “scrubs” carbon dioxide from the air to produce water and methane. Unfortunately, these devices are huge, heavy, difficult to operate, and inefficient, needing one-third of the ECLSS’s energy.

Resupplying LEO missions in hours makes system replenishment easier. Resupply missions are impractical for Mars missions, which can take three years and six to nine months to reach. Dr. Brinkert wrote for The Conversation:

Thus, the quest for Moon and Mars systems continues. One option is to harness space’s immense solar energy to directly produce oxygen and recycle carbon dioxide in one device. Like photosynthesis, such a gadget would simply require water. That would avoid elaborate setups like the ISS, where light collection and chemical manufacturing are separated.

A photoelectrochemical (PEC) system would convert CO2 and water into oxygen gas and hydrogen/carbon-based fuels using semiconductor materials and metallic catalysts instead of chlorophyll. Solar heating might directly catalyze water and speed up the chemical reaction, using less electricity. This life support device would benefit long-duration missions by reducing volume and weight and increasing efficiency.

Mars has about 96% carbon dioxide, making it perfect for artificial photosynthesis. Due to its greater distance from the Sun, the Red Planet receives less light than Earth. Is this a problem? We determined Martian solar intensity. We demonstrated that these gadgets can be used there, although solar mirrors are more significant.

Our study reveals that these devices might complement life support systems like the ISS’s oxygen generator assembly. This is especially true when used with equipment that concentrate solar energy to power reactions (basically big mirrors that focus incoming sunlight).

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