Recycling Oxygen from Carbon Dioxide in Future Space Exploration

NORTH HAVEN, CT (February 25, 2010) The crew on the International Space Station (ISS) currently get their oxygen for breathing by resupply from Earth, either in the form of oxygen carried up on the shuttle or by electrolyzing water (H2O) that is carried up from Earth by shuttle. This involves substantial transport costs as well as being impractical without regular re-supply. Meanwhile, in the present ISS atmosphere revitalization system, the carbon dioxide (CO2) they breathe out is separated and dumped into space, resulting in a net loss of oxygen.

Precision Combustion, Inc. (PCI) announced today that it has been awarded a new NASA Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) contract to explore an alternative approach that would recycle oxygen from the astronauts' exhaled carbon dioxide. This involves reacting hydrogen with the CO2 over a catalyst to form water, which could then be later electrolyzed to release oxygen. This would potentially make a spacecraft such as the ISS independent of water or oxygen re-supply by achieving a complete oxygen loop closure. This approach also has the potential to make long-duration space missions and lunar/martian bases more feasible.

The general catalytic process implemented in this approach has been known for 100 years, invented and named for a French scientist named Paul Sabatier, and for which he received the 1912 Nobel Prize. The Sabatier process converts carbon dioxide and hydrogen over a catalyst to methane and water. In a spacecraft, the water can then be electrolyzed using power from solar cells to make oxygen (i.e., recycling the oxygen contained in the carbon dioxide), while the methane could be used for chemical synthesis to make other compounds.

This project will explore the opportunity for developing a compact and lightweight yet efficient Sabatier reactor based on a novel catalyst concept. Such a lightweight, self-sustaining CO2-to-water/O2 system would be essential for future long-duration manned flights and planetary bases.

Dr. Christian Junaedi, the Project's Principal Investigator, commented,

"In the future spacecraft cabin air revitalization system, carbon dioxide would be used to produce life support consumables, such as O2 and H2O, via the Sabatier process. This is one of the key challenges we need to address to enable long-term manned space explorations and station self-sustainability."

The development of the novel Sabatier reactor fueled by metabolic-generated CO2 has potential for future NASA missions by generating oxygen and water from spacecraft atmosphere resources. Size, weight, and performance durability are all key design attributes. The proposed Sabatier reactor will feature an ultra-compact, lightweight design, while maintaining high selectivity to water and methane products.

Once proof of concept has been validated, targeted NASA applications include in-situ resource utilization (ISRU) concept for future lunar base and Mars missions, both for generating life support consumables and for producing methane. In addition, non-NASA spin-off applications may be explored such as methanation for the Haber process, which is used to produce ammonia for fertilizer and ammunition production, and potentially for Integrated Gasification Combined Cycle (IGCC) processes for cleaner coal-based power production.

Precision Combustion, Inc. (www.precision-combustion.com) is a clean energy technology company developing and manufacturing catalytic devices and systems for energy sector applications. To learn more, visit www.precision-combustion.com.

The U.S. Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) program seeks to stimulate technological innovation through competitive solicitations targeted to solve government agency objectives. Approximately one in eight Phase I proposals are funded for proof-of-concept R&D, with 40%-45% of those advancing to a Phase II for sustained development. Winners keep the rights to technology developed and are encouraged to commercialize the technology.

For more information, contact: Tony Anderson
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