CI Features CoorsTek Ceramic Membrane Technology for NASA Mars 2020 Mission

August 01 2016

Ceramics on Mars?

Some fascinating CoorsTek technology makes the cover story in the August 2016 issue of Ceramics Industry magazine . . .

Martian Oxygen: Creating Breathable Air with Engineered Ceramics

In the 2015 film The Martian, based on the novel of the same title by Andy Weir, astronaut Mark Watney struggles for survival after his team is forced to evacuate Mars due to a violent dust storm — leaving him behind after mistakenly presuming he is dead. The story highlights how a manned mission to Mars will critically depend on a reliable oxygen supply. Through shrewd engineering and improvising, Watney manages to gather and create the critical supplies needed to survive on Mars until the next mission arrives: food, water, shelter, and oxygen. Watney, a botanist and mechanical engineer, plants potatoes in a modified room where he waters them by burning some of the mission’s fuel supply of hydrazine with oxygen (O2). 

While the “normal” supplies of food, water and shelter were created through innovative engineering, establishing a steady oxygen supply required more specialized tools. Thankfully, the mission came equipped with the “oxygenator,” which took compressed carbon dioxide (CO2) and “passed it over a zirconia electrolysis cell to pull oxygen atoms off the CO2.”1 While this sounds closer to science fiction than science, the truth is that NASA is implementing such a concept
on its upcoming mission to Mars.

Using Engineered Ceramics to Create Oxygen from the Martian Atmosphere

Unlike Earth, the Mars atmosphere is predominantly carbon dioxide—approximately 95% CO2, with the remainder largely argon and nitrogen. MOXIE uses
a solid oxide electrolysis (SOXE) stack developed by CoorsTek company Ceramatec to produce oxygen from the CO2-rich Martian “air.” These custom-engineered stacks are comprised of scandia-stabilized zirconia (ScSZ) electrolytes with ceramic anodes and cermet (ceramic-metallic composite) cathodes on opposite sides. 

As compressed CO2 flows through the powered SOXE stack, electrolysis breaks out oxygen ions. Using the solid electrolysis system is important for three reasons: efficiency, durability and stability. Solid oxide electrolysis consumes much less electric energy than other processes,minimizing the consumption of the limited power in space missions. In fact, the SOXE stack operates near the theoretical efficiency limit.

Active Ceramic Membranes Also Enable Gas-to-Chemicals and Gas-to-Liquids Conversion

At sufficient temperatures, specific compositions of zirconia and other advanced technical ceramics can transport ions — allowing them to act as selective ion transport ceramics at a molecular level. 

CoorsTek Membrane Sciences and Ceramatec (a CoorsTek R&D company) scientists continue to develop this remarkable capability, and to work with key global partners to push the frontier of materials science in active ceramic membranes. Ceramic membranes are used to create pressurized pure oxygen, make alkali salts from various organic and inorganic sources, and act as catalysts to enhance other chemical conversion processes.