Earth's climate is changing fast and threatening levels of carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions is one of the primary reason behind it. Interestingly, the atmosphere of Mars—which humanity hopes to colonise—is predominantly CO2. Now, scientists from India have found a unique solution that can not only help solve Earth's problem of unwanted CO2 but also use Mars' atmosphere to our advantage—use CO2 as raw material to produce energy sustainably.

According to a new study by researchers from the Tata Institute of Fundamental Research, Magnesium (Mg) can be utilized to convert CO2 into methane, methanol, and formic acid. In the paper, the authors demonstrated a method of producing the energy-providing substances by making CO2 react with water at room temperature and atmospheric pressure in the presence of Mg. Highlighting the applicability of the novel mechanism on the red planet, the authors wrote, "This Mg-process has the potential to be used in the Mars' environment for fuel production."

Earth from space
Earth from spaceReuters

Bringing CO2 and Mg Together 

CO2 is a trace gas in Earth's atmosphere. It plays a crucial role in the planet's carbon cycle. However, CO2 is also a greenhouse gas—it traps heat within the Earth's atmosphere and heats up the planet. The increasing levels of CO2 emissions can be largely owed to human activities such as the burning of fossil fuels and deforestation. According to the latest report by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the concentrations of atmospheric CO2 crossed 420 parts per million (PPM) for the first time in recorded history. Therefore, the need to address the rising levels of CO2 is an urgent one. 

Mg is the eight-most abundantly available element in Earth's crust. It is also the fourth most commonly present element on our planet, with iron, oxygen and silicon being the other three. Also, at $1 to $4 per kg, its cost of production is reasonably low. It requires low energy for production and also generates very minimal quantities of CO2 during production. Leveraging these beneficial properties of the metal, the researchers devised a simple chemical process without the use of any external energy to break down CO2.

A Simple Chemical Process

For the study, the researchers used Mg—as both nanoparticles and bulk—in order to make CO2 react directly with water at room temperature and atmospheric pressure. CO2 from the air as well as pure CO2 was used for the experiments. With water serving as a source of hydrogen, the entire production process lasted not more than 15 minutes at 300 K and 1 bar. Also, no external energy was required for the reaction to take place.  

Magnesium (Representational Picture)Wikimedia Commons

The authors explained that the chemical process was possible only due to the cooperative function of Mg, CO2, basic magnesium carbonate (which was produced during the course of the reaction), and water. "If any of the four components was missing, no CO2 conversion took place," stated the authors in the paper.

According to the authors, on the basis of the simple reaction, 1 kg of Mg could potentially yield 2.43 liters of methane, 3.85 kg of basic magnesium carbonate (which is used in pharmaceutical industries), and 940 liters of hydrogen, along with small quantities of formic acid and methanol.

Making Our Own Fuel on Mars 

Mars (Representational Picture)Pixabay

In order to be able to sustain ourselves on Mars, finding a reliable and sustainable source of energy is key. Surprisingly, the red planet consists of all the ingredients that are necessary for the novel process described.

Mars' atmosphere is composed of 95.32 percent of CO2. Water is also available in the form of ice on its surface. Recent reports have stated that Magnesium is present on the planet in abundant quantities. However, the temperature on Mars is much lower than that of Earth. Therefore, the team also conducted their experiment at lower temperatures (−1 C to +1 C).

They found that an Mg-enabled CO2 conversion reaction was possible. "These results indicate the potential of this Mg-process to be used in the Mars' environment, a step towards magnesium utilization on Mars, although more detailed studies are needed," wrote the authors.