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The European Space Agency (ESA) and National Institute of Chemical Physics and Biophysics (NICPB) in Estonia have signed a partnership agreement for investigating the electrochemical splitting of COfor carbon and oxygen production in Mars conditions. The agreement comes at an exciting time where the race for human exploration of Mars has been so far split between the world leading superpowers. Estonia, with its 1.3 million population is also getting into the Mars game now.

 

Estonian scientists led by the Energy Technologies Laboratory of the NICPB have proposed a study for developing a reactor technology where CO2 is electrochemically split into solid carbon and gaseous oxygen, which are then separated and stored. The technology used for this process is molten salt carbon capture and electrochemical transformation (MSCC-ET) where the CO2 molecule is broken up via a carbonate salt electrolyte. On Mars, it could be a solution to two problems: energy storage and oxygen production. Even more since the conditions are perfect as the atmosphere of Mars consists over 95% of carbon dioxide with only about 0.1% oxygen.

 

ESA and NICPB have agreed to put their respective competence and  facilities at each other’s disposal for the purpose of testing the viability of MSCC-ET for usage on Mars and developing a reactor that could work as both an energy storage and oxygen generation device. „It will provide a great opportunity for Estonian scientists to contribute to European space research and interact with space industry experts to take the next step in inhabitating the Red Planet“, said the Head of Estonian Space Office Madis Võõras.

 

In order to actively support the research ESA has agreed to co-fund a Post-Doc Study of Dr Sander Ratso, who will be carrying out his research over the course of 24 months in the National Institute of Chemical Physics and Biophysics in Tallinn, and the European Space Research and Technology Centre in Noordwijk, the Netherlands. „It is clear that oxygen generation and energy storage are completely new use cases for this proposed method and there are many unknowns that we are going to face“, mentioned Ratso. „However, we might be on the verge of a great scientific discovery for the humankind,“ he continued.

 

Dr Ratso has defended his PhD thesis on carbon catalysts for fuel cell cathodes. He has received multiple honours and scholarships for his outstanding work in studying electrochemical systems. Ratso is also the co-founder of an Estonian based startup UPCatalyst, which produces sustainable carbon nanomaterials from CO2and waste biomass for a vast range of applications ranging from biomedicine to battery technologies.

Estonian team UP Catalyst is about to boost their novel way of oxygen production on Mars. With technical support, funding and hands on mentoring from field specific experts, the startup is on a path to helping mankind take this next step.

NASA has been preparing for human exploration of Mars for decades, and the Mars Oxygen In-Situ Resource Utilization Experiment (better known as MOXIE) has already shown some promising attempts to produce oxygen from the Martian atmosphere for propellant and for breathing. MOXIE works by separating oxygen atoms from carbon dioxide molecules, which are made up of one carbon atom and two oxygen atoms. A waste product, carbon monoxide, is emitted into the Martian atmosphere.

Now, Estonian based startup UP Catalyst will be part of the journey in paving the way for safe travel to the Red Planet, with the support of the European Space Agency. UP Catalyst’s innovative carbon capture method works in the same way and even at the same temperature. The difference is, however, that UP Catalyst is reprocessing the carbon dioxide into valuable carbon nanomaterials. The produced nanomaterials could be used in various fields of space industry, e.g. in battery and ultracapacitor technologies, conductive and strengthening coatings, polymer formulations, water filters etc. Mars has a thin atmosphere with a surface pressure less than a hundredth of the Earth’s. Furthermore, it is 96% carbon dioxide with only about 0.1% oxygen. For comparison, Earth’s atmosphere is 21% oxygen. UP Catalyst has developed a novel method to use both byproducts in a sustainable way.

UP Catalyst CEO, Dr Gary Urb explained that “we still have a lot of work to do as we move toward our goal of one day seeing humans on Mars. The first steps in our production development have shown promising signs in becoming a strong contender both in the space industry and nanotechnology sector.”

“UP Catalyst has a very strong scientific and technical background which translates into high potential to support human missions on Mars“ said ESA BIC project manager Sven Lilla. “ESA BIC funding is just a small indication of the ESA support for UP Catalyst to connect them with the right mentors and field specific experts to start scaling up their production method”, Lilla continued.

ESA BIC Estonia is part of the Europe-wide ESA BIC network, offering access to ESA expertise, knowledge and data, laboratory and testing facilities of the participating universities and hands-on business development support from the Incubation Centre teams.

The whole UP Catalyst team has commented that they are looking forward to being part of a project of such scale – helping human Mars exploration – and is confident that such a mission will happen in the coming decades. NASA aims to land astronauts on Mars in the 2030s, however, it has some competition in the race to get there. Both Boeing and SpaceX hope to get to the Red Planet first, with SpaceX setting the lofty goal of arriving in 2026.