Scientists in the US have devised a method to aid astronomers in developing Martian rocket fuel based on bacteria found on the Red Planet. While the bioproduction process will rely on three Martian resources—carbon dioxide, sunlight, and frozen water—two bacteria will be delivered from Earth to the Red Planet.
The first is cyanobacteria (algae), which would consume CO2 from the Martian atmosphere and convert it to sugars using sunlight. Second, Georgia Institute of Technology researchers led a team that developed an engineered Escherichia coli that converts the sugars into a Mars-specific fuel for rockets and other propulsion systems.
In a research published in Nature Communications, they explained that the Martian fuel, known as 2,3-butanediol, is currently available and can be produced by E. coli. In addition, it’s utilized on Earth to manufacture polymers, which are used to make rubber.
“One of the few resources on Mars is carbon dioxide. Because biology excels at turning CO2 into usable molecules, it’s an excellent candidate for developing rocket fuel, “Georgia Tech’s School of Chemical and Biomolecular Engineering’s Nick Kruyer explained (ChBE).
The current aim is to use methane and liquid oxygen to power rockets leaving Mars (LOX). However, because neither is found on Mars, they must be carried from Earth to power a return spacecraft into orbit.
It will cost roughly $8 billion to deliver the required 30 tonnes of methane and LOX. To cut costs, NASA considered converting Martian CO2 to LOX via chemical catalysis, although this still necessitates the delivery of methane from Earth. Georgia Tech researchers presented a biotechnology-based in situ resource utilization (bio-ISRU) technique as an option that can create both the fuel and LOX from CO2.
The procedure begins with delivering plastic materials to Mars, which will be constructed into four football-field-sized photobioreactors. Photosynthesis would allow cyanobacteria to grow in the reactors (which require carbon dioxide). The cyanobacteria would be broken down into sugars by enzymes in a separate reactor, which could then be given to E. To make the rocket fuel, E. coli was used. First, the E would be separated from the power. Then, advanced separation methods were used to isolate E. coli fermentation broth.
Making the fuel on Mars with Martian resources, according to the experts, might help cut mission expenses. Furthermore, the bio-ISRU process will produce 44 tonnes of extra clean oxygen, which might be used for various purposes, such as human colonization.
The latest method entails sending two bacteria to Mars. The first would be cyanobacteria, which would utilize sunlight to photosynthesize carbohydrates after being fed carbon dioxide from the Martian atmosphere and water from Martian ice. The second would be genetically modified E. coli bacteria, ferment the sugars into a rocket fuel known as 2,3-butanediol, which is currently used to help make rubber on Earth.
According to the experts, a rocket fuel facility the size of four football fields might be built. They calculated that their method would require 32% less energy than the previous strategy, which involved shipping methane from Earth and producing 44 tonnes of extra oxygen to support human crews.