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AI chemist works oxygen-making method using Mars rocks


Scientists in China claim they have employed artificial intelligence and physical robotics to help make oxygen from water and space rocks available on the Martian surface.

Based at the University of Science and Technology of China in Hefei, the project is part of a broader effort to find the resources necessary for human habitation on the Red Planet while carrying as little as possible from Earth.

Dr. Jun Jiang, research lead, ventures that chemicals found in meteorites on the Martian surface can be used as catalysts to help extract oxygen, necessary for human respiration.

The study — published in Nature Synthesis this week — offers credence to one method of producing oxygen to support any future human missions to Mars.

The research underscores the importance of AI in finding and refining the right catalysts among samples of five different categories of meteorites, sourced both from Mars itself, and from samples found on Earth known to have parallels on Mars.

“The entire process, including Martian ore pretreatment, catalyst synthesis, characterization, testing and, most importantly, the search for the optimal catalyst formula, is performed without human intervention,” the paper explains.

The iterative process, both in chemical modelling and physical processes, could have taken 2,000 years if performed by humans, the authors claim.

“We have developed a robotic AI system that has a chemistry brain,” Jiang told the Nature website. “We think our machine can make use of compounds in Martian ores without human guidance.”

Although not abundant in liquid form on Mars, frozen water has been found on the Red Planet just under the surface in the polar regions, while briny water flows seasonally in some areas.

In the paper, Jiang and the team suggest their “robotic AI-chemist” could lead to the automated production of catalysts using Martian meteorites, providing a method for future Mars explorers to make oxygen on the planet’s surface.

However, there is competition for in-situ oxygen production on Mars. Earlier this year, Michael Hecht at MIT’s Haystack Observatory led an investigation dubbed Mars Oxygen In-Situ Resource Utilization Experiment (MOXIE) on board NASA’s Perseverance rover. It has successfully demonstrated the production of oxygen from the Martian air, which is mostly carbon dioxide. But it will need to be massively scaled up if it is to keep anything but a small mammal alive.

Another recent piece of research involves a photoelectrochemical device which uses semiconductor materials to convert solar energy directly to chemical energy to produce hydrogen and oxygen from water without requiring the intermediate production of electricity, according to a viability study led by researcher Katharina Brinkert, assistant professor of catalysis at the University of Warwick and published in June. ®


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