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One Step Oxygen Formation: A Promise of Terraforming?

Oct 04, 2014 02:30 PM EDT
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New research is suggesting that a certain frequency of sunlight along can convert carbon dioxide into oxygen. However there are many limitations to this process, making it rather useless to Earth. Still, the discovery offers some promising ideas for researchers investigating planet formation and alien worlds.

A new study published in the journal Science details how researchers from the University of California (UC), Davis determined that a high energy vacuum ultraviolet laser can excite carbon dioxide to the point where it divides into carbon monoxide and oxygen.

According to UC researcher Zhou Lu, it has long been suspected that on a young Earth, the atmosphere likely contained mainly carbon dioxide, as is the case today on Mars and Venus. Yet there also must have been a small amount of oxygen floating around even before the first microbial life. These days, the Earth's oxygen supply comes from photosynthesis among plant life and phytoplankton.

So in the absence of these things, where did the first oxygen come from?

"Our results indicate that O2 can be formed by carbon dioxide dissociation in a one step process. The same process can be applied in other carbon dioxide dominated atmospheres such as Mars and Venus," Zhou explained in a recent release.

According to the study, vacuum ultraviolet light is traditionally absorbed by the oxygen in Earth's air, so it has little effect on our world now. But during the dawn of the Blue Planet as we know it, it may have helped spark the Great Oxidation Event, slowly converting the atmosphere bit by bit.

In Zhou's experiment, the specially isolated laser only converted about five percent of the carbon dioxide molecules exposed. Still this relatively minor production could have manufactured significant quantities of the gas over millions of years.

This also provides insight into how oxygen can be found and produced on other planets. If researchers could discern a way to speed up this one-step process, they could even find themselves looking at the first steps of a dramatic terraforming event.

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