Leveraging Photosynthesis: A Sustainable Energy Approach for Martian Settlement & Space Exploration

by Hiroshi Tanaka
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Artificial Photosynthesis

A team of researchers at the University of Warwick advocates the use of synthetic photosynthesis devices. These devices can utilize sunlight to produce oxygen and recycle carbon dioxide, offering a sustainable energy option for space travel. This technology holds potential for utilization on the Moon and Mars, enhancing the efficiency of space expeditions and guiding advancements in terrestrial solar technology. The proposed design represents a conceptual depiction of such a device on Mars.

Scientists are developing an eco-friendly method to capture solar energy in space, potentially enhancing life-support systems on the Moon and Mars.

Published in Nature Communications, the study explores a novel technique to transform renewable, green energy from beyond Earth’s atmosphere. The researchers are leveraging photosynthesis—the daily energy-creating chemical process in plants—to make the space industry more sustainable.

This University of Warwick-led study investigates the application of a unique device—a semiconductor—that absorbs sunlight on the Moon and Mars. It’s expected that these devices could boost life-support systems on Mars.

Named “artificial photosynthesis devices,” these systems emulate the processes that sustain life in Earth’s plants—transforming water into oxygen solely through sunlight and recycling carbon dioxide. Such integrated systems can directly utilize solar power and might reduce weight during prolonged space journeys compared to conventional systems presently used on the International Space Station, thereby making space travel more efficient.

As we aim to explore our solar system, the need for efficient and dependable energy sources in space is evident. The aspiration is to implement this technology on the Moon and Mars to harvest green energy to power rockets and enhance life-support systems for producing oxygen and other chemicals, and recycling carbon dioxide. Learnings from this study on how to enhance device efficiencies feed back into optimization for terrestrial applications and offer insights into traditional solar cell performance in space.

Assistant Professor Katharina Brinkert from the Department of Chemistry stated, “Challenges for human space exploration mirror those for the green energy transition on Earth; both necessitate sustainable energy sources. Our research demonstrates how the abundant sunlight in space could be used for energy harvesting, much like Earth’s plants, to power life-support systems for extended space travel. This technology could substantially enhance oxygen production and carbon dioxide recycling on the Moon and Mars.”

Associate Professor Sophia Haussener from the Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL), Switzerland, added, “This study allows us to gauge the potential of such devices for extraterrestrial use and offers preliminary design guidelines for their possible application.”

Reference: “Technological Feasibility Assessment of Photoelectrochemical Devices for Oxygen and Fuel Production on the Moon and Mars” by Byron Ross, Sophia Haussener, and Katharina Brinkert, 6 June 2023, Nature Communications.
DOI: 10.1038/s41467-023-38676-2

The research was financially supported by the European Space Agency through the Open Space Innovation Platform.

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