This company is working to create oxygen on Mars
Photo by Daniele Colucci | Unsplash
Not everything you see in science fiction movies is fiction—the work of Utah’s OxEon Energy is a top example. OxEon is among the groups partnering with NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory to produce MOXIE, the Mars Oxygen In-Situ Resource Utilization Experiment, a system designed to create oxygen on Mars.
A brochure from the company describes MOXIE as the real-life version of Mark Watney’s “Oxygenator” in “The Martian,” and it’s functioning on a NASA Mars rover right now.
MOXIE, also a collaboration with the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, uses solid oxide electrolysis to produce 10 grams of oxygen per hour with a purity of 99.96 percent, according to OxEon. The process uses a chemical reaction to convert carbon dioxide into carbon monoxide and oxygen.
Since the atmosphere of Mars is 96 percent carbon dioxide and only .13 percent oxygen, any trip to Mars would require vast tanks of liquid energy. For comparison, the air in Earth’s atmosphere is 21 percent oxygen, according to NASA.
OxEon says a tank of liquid oxygen is the biggest single thing astronauts would need to bring to Mars. “To support a human mission to Mars, we have to bring a lot of stuff from Earth, like computers, spacesuits, and habitats,” MOXIE Deputy Principal Investigator Jeff Hoffman said for the NASA Mars webpage. “But oxygen? If you can make it there, go for it—you’re way ahead of the game.”
Whenever astronauts are first sent to Mars, which could be sometime in the 2030s, oxygen from this technology could be used to breathe and oxidize the fuel for the return trip to Earth since most of what is burned when driving a car or launching a rocket is actually oxygen.
Currently, MOXIE is performing measurements on the purity of the carbon monoxide and oxygen created and then discarding it. The version that could power a rocket to Mars will be 200 times larger. OxEon Co-Founder and CEO Lyman Frost adds that the company finished a demonstration earlier this year at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in the Martian Environmental Chamber detailing methane production for the return trip home from Mars.
Technology for here on Earth
The thought of powering space exploration is compelling, but it’s not the only thing in the works for OxEon, based in North Salt Lake.
“We have three technologies. The solid oxide electrolysis is probably the most exciting one,” Frost says.
Among other real-life science fiction projects, OxEon is working on a system that could help turn seawater into fuel to power U.S. Navy ships.
In collaboration with researchers at the University of Rochester, the University of Pittsburgh and the Naval Research Laboratory, the system reliably converted carbon dioxide into carbon monoxide in 2020.
Also among OxEon’s offerings is a Fischer Tropsch reactor, which produces fuel from a combination of carbon monoxide and hydrogen, and technology developed to capture and reuse carbon dioxide produced by power plants.
All these complicated technologies and processes aren’t the easiest to understand, but the bottom line, Frost says, is that OxEon could be at the forefront of many of the world’s current energy solutions.
“We have the potential to solve a lot of the problems that are concerning people right now,” Frost says. “If you start with a biomass, … something like cow manure or wood waste or municipal solid waste, any of those have hydrogen and carbon in them, and you can take those and use that energy to produce something that will replace an equivalent amount of petroleum.”
One of the biggest current problems with renewable energy, Frost says, is that it’s not always on. The sun doesn’t always shine, and the wind doesn’t always blow in the right way. He mentions one winery in California that OxEon is working with. The company works off of a solar grid, but its batteries don’t store enough power from the sun to power them through the night. OxEon has a solution.
“During the day, we’ll electrolyze water into hydrogen. We’ll store that, and then at night, we’ll run it back through the same set of cells to generate the electricity they need at nighttime. We’re basically time shifting the energy from the solar farm from when it’s available to when it’s needed,” Frost says. “First, we use electricity to generate hydrogen; then, we use hydrogen to generate electricity.”
Let’s go big
Right now, turning around the investment on one of these products will take a long time without government subsidies, Frost says. Scale is one of the most significant needs to meet the climate crisis head-on.
“You’ve got to be at a larger scale. There’s got to be enough demand out there to justify the capital investment to drive down the costs,” Frost says, offering televisions as an example. “Remember the small flat-screen TVs, when they first came out, how expensive they were? Now you can buy a 50-inch thing that will cover half a wall for a few hundred dollars. It takes volume. It takes experience on how you drive down the costs.”
All of the technology coming out of North Salt Lake is from a team of about 40 people and a company founded by three longtime acquaintances that has yet to take any outside investment.
Frost co-founded the company in 2017 with Dr. S. Elango Elangovan and Joseph Hartvigsen. They have all worked together on and off since 1993.
While he says they will likely need to raise capital for the company to take “the next step up,” everything has been self-financed so far.