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Magnets could solve oxygen problems for astronauts on long voyages

An astronaut exploring an arid landscape.

An astronaut exploring an arid landscape. Supamotion/Shutterstock

A team of experts from the University of Warwick has demonstrated a new method of using magnets to generate oxygen in a microgravity environment. Magnets are used to attract air bubbles in an area where they coalesce, making it easier to collect them in low-gravity spaces rather than using heavy machinery unsuitable for long-term missions. The key question addressed by the experiment is buoyancy. Or more precisely, the lack of natural buoyancy in space.

Unlike on Earth, bubbles in liquids automatically Rising to the top, while the fluid stays at the bottom due to gravity, the air bubbles are suspended in the liquid medium in microgravity. To overcome this problem, machines on the International Space Station rely on centrifuges to push the gas out. However, these machines are heavy, power hungry and require a lot of maintenance.

Even a NASA study Presumably, existing systems (the ones currently used for oxygen-generating components on the space station) are not feasible for long-duration missions such as travel to Mars and beyond. That’s where the latest research eliminates the need to use a centrifuge to generate oxygen by using magnetism. Using a special drop tower facility at the German Centre for Applied Space Technology and Microgravity to simulate microgravity conditions in space, the scientists analysed how magnets are used for phase separation to separate gas and liquid.

Solving the bulk shipping problem for space travel The researchers tested different types of liquids to see how to use artificial magnets to attract air bubbles on the surface of the electrodes for easy extraction. The preferred method of producing oxygen in space is electrolysis, which involves passing an electric current through water to separate hydrogen and oxygen atoms. But separating oxygen from an electrolytic cell requires an artificial centrifuge chamber to spin and expel the gas. According to the study, a simple neodymium magnet can be used to extract gases in microgravity.

“These effects have had a great impact on the further development of phase separation systems Huge impact, such as long-term space missions,” noted Dr Katharina Brinkert, a member of the University of Warwick research team. Magnets could be used to create a completely passive system for extracting oxygen in space without the need for added power and heavy machinery, says lead author of the research paper, Alvaro Romero-Calvo of the University of Colorado Boulder. The above research results have been published in NPJ Microgravity, a Nature – Affiliated Magazine. In April 2021, the toaster-sized MOXIE (Mars Oxygen In Situ Resource Utilization Experiment) instrument onboard Perseverance will convert carbon dioxide into oxygen on the surface of Mars. Producing just 10 grams of oxygen per hour, it’s an important stepping stone for future missions.

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