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New Energy Device Could Power Life on Mars

Mar 06, 2015 09:25 AM EST

Scientists have developed a new energy device that harnesses carbon dioxide in such a way that it could power life on Mars, according to a new study.

According to NASA, a manned mission to Mars is necessary for human survival, and so finding a way for humans to survive on the Red Planet is crucial.

The research, published in the journal Nature Communications, proposes a new kind of engine for producing energy based on the Leidenfrost effect - a phenomenon that happens when a liquid comes into close contact with a surface much hotter than its boiling point. You may recognize this effect when you see water skidding on a hot pan, but it's also seen with solid carbon dioxide (CO2), commonly known as dry ice.

In the case of dry ice, it can hover above hot surfaces due to a protective barrier of evaporated gas vapor. So researchers at Northumbria University created an engine based on this vapor, for the first time using the Leidenfrost effect as a way of harvesting energy.

Unlike steam-based heat engines, the new Leidenfrost-based engine creates very little friction. That's because the layer of high-pressure vapor creates freely rotating rotors whose energy is converted into power without the need of a bearing.

It is well known that Mars boasts an extremely harsh environment, but increasing evidence from NASA's Mars Reconnaissance Orbiter (MRO) suggests that solid CO2 may be a naturally occurring resource on Mars, based on the seasonal appearance of gullies on the surface of the Red Planet.

"Carbon dioxide plays a similar role on Mars as water does on Earth," co-author Dr. Rodrigo Ledesma-Aguilar said in a statement. "It is a widely available resource which undergoes cyclic phase changes under the natural Martian temperature variations."

"Perhaps future power stations on Mars will exploit such a resource to harvest energy as dry-ice blocks evaporate, or to channel the chemical energy extracted from other carbon-based sources, such as methane gas," he added.

Most experts looking for hints of life on Mars search for signs of water, with past and present rover missions dedicated to the task. One study published just yesterday even found that billions of years ago Mars once held more water than the Arctic Ocean, losing most of it to space.

However, these new findings show that solid CO2 is just as promising for sustaining life on the Martian surface.

"One thing is certain," Ledesma-Aguilar said; "our future on other planets depends on our ability to adapt our knowledge to the constraints imposed by strange worlds, and to devise creative ways to exploit natural resources that do not naturally occur here on Earth."

For more great nature science stories and general news, please visit our sister site, Headlines and Global News (HNGN).

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