Mars exploration has always presented unique challenges, and researchers in China are now leveraging Artificial Intelligence (AI) to address one of the crucial aspects of sustaining human life on the red planet: oxygen extraction. In a groundbreaking study published in Nature Synthesis, a team led by Jun Jiang at the University of Science and Technology of China has developed a robotic chemist powered by AI. This innovative technology could potentially extract oxygen from water on Mars, using materials found on the planet itself.
Localized Solutions for Mars
The AI-powered robot chemist operates on a fundamental principle: actively utilizing Martian materials to craft catalysts that break down water, consequently releasing essential oxygen. This strategic approach is intricately aligned with the imperative of harnessing local resources—a critical consideration for the challenges of future Mars missions. Importantly, as highlighted by Andy Cooper, a chemist at the University of Liverpool, this strategy systematically addresses the difficulties posed by the distant and inhospitable Martian environment. Additionally, through active engagement with local resources, the robot chemist strategically positions itself as a proactive solution for navigating the unique challenges presented by the Red Planet.
The Robotic Process
The researchers employed a mobile machine, approximately the size of a refrigerator, equipped with a robotic arm to analyze five meteorites simulating the Martian surface. Using acid and alkali, the AI-powered system dissolved and separated the materials, subsequently analyzing the resulting compounds. The machine then conducted a search of over 3.7 million chemical formulae to identify a catalyst capable of breaking down water. This process, which would have taken a human researcher 2,000 years, resulted in the development of an oxygen-evolution reaction catalyst with the potential for use in future Mars missions.
Localized Oxygen Production on Mars
The implications of this AI-driven technology undoubtedly extend beyond theoretical applications. Notably, Jun Jiang suggests that for every square meter of Martian material, the robotic system could produce nearly 60 grams of oxygen per hour. If this potential is realized, it could effectively obviate the need for future missions to transport oxygen-producing catalysts from Earth. Furthermore, the robot’s remarkable ability to work continuously for years adds to its appeal, positioning it as a viable solution for sustaining human presence on Mars.
Contrasting Approaches – MOXIE vs. Robotic Chemist
While the Chinese team’s AI robot chemist presents an intriguing solution, it faces competition from existing technologies. Michael Hecht, lead investigator on NASA’s Perseverance rover’s Mars Oxygen In-Situ Resource Utilization Experiment (MOXIE), argues that there is a simpler way to produce oxygen on Mars. MOXIE has already demonstrated the ability to extract oxygen from the Martian air, primarily composed of carbon dioxide. Despite its limited output, Hecht suggests scaling up MOXIE could provide a more straightforward and proven method for oxygen production on Mars.
Beyond Oxygen – Potential for Other Catalysts
Jun Jiang emphasizes the versatility of their robotic chemist, suggesting that it could produce various useful catalysts on Mars. Beyond oxygen extraction, the system could potentially contribute to processes such as fertilizing plants. Jiang even hints at the possibility of utilizing AI-driven technology on other celestial bodies, including the Moon.
AI in Chemistry – A Broad Frontier
The application of AI to synthesize useful materials is not limited to space travel. Andy Cooper acknowledges that this is an emerging method with broader applications in various fields of chemistry, extending beyond catalysis and oxygen production. The ability to leverage AI for material synthesis represents a novel and promising area of research with implications for both space exploration and terrestrial applications.